LoRa passes 100 countries, but we still can’t rule flailing Sigfox out

The LoRa Alliance has announced that it now has network operator coverage in 100 countries, a milestone that it says shows the success of LoRaWAN in the low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) sector. Notably, it isn’t disclosing the ratio of public to private deployments here, but it comes as Light Reading again reports on executive departures at chief technology rival Sigfox.

The problem with Sigfox is that it only has to sign one big deal for it all to pay off. Managing something like a regional tracking agreement with Maersk for shipping containers, or a Latin American fuel tank replenishment contract with an oil major, would be enough to propel it to the big leagues – quieting the investors that are very likely unhappy with progress.

However, such contracts require a huge sales effort, and Sigfox doesn’t have the brand power to assuage the initial concerns about longevity. Of course, if a giant of industry buys in, it might be pocket change to buy the company out if it all goes belly-up, or if the investors grow impatient and sell Sigfox off.

Sigfox has been battling the age-old startup problem – that it might have a great technology for a particular customer or use case, but it does not have the reputation to convince the C-Level types to plump for it. This issue has confounded every unlicensed spectrum LPWAN (U-LPWAN startup), and enabled the MNOs to catch up with their licensed spectrum LPWAN (L-LPWAN) offerings.

Release 13 and 14 of the 3GPP standards finally enabled the L-LPWAN protocols to fulfill the same application requirements as the U-LPWAN candidates, and Release 14 was a much needed improvement that seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the U-LPWAN community – which no longer beats its chest about its world-conquering capabilities, and now seems much more focused on the matters at hand.

Of course, U-LPWAN still has a lot of room in the lower-price end of things, as they still largely hold that advantage – they don’t have spectrum licenses to pay off. These lower-value applications are well-suited, and aren’t something that L-LPWAN is chasing after in any great hurry. This value disparity means that there is going to be a distinct divide between U-LPWAN and L-LPWAN going forward.

The LoRa announcement says that it reached the 100-mark at the end of December, and that the number of LoRa end-devices tripled in 2018. Again, there’s no distinction on the ratio of end-devices between the private networks (think campus deployments, for a single customer) versus the public networks (the equivalent of an MNO), but due to LoRa’s networking stack, end devices can broadcast to both types and still get their messages through.

The LoRa Alliance says that APAC and Europe grew strongest in 2018, up 30% and 50% respectively. It cites Orange’s Ronan Le Bras, Head of Technical Strategy at the French MNO’s wireless division, who says that Orange’s LoRa network now covers 30,000 municipalities and 95% of the metropolitan population. Le Bras adds that the Orange Business Services wing has launched its on-premises LoRa offering, “suitable for a range of applications, especially in smart cities and industry, including energy and fluid management, on-site tracking, geo-fencing, waste control, environmental metering, lighting, and parking monitoring.”

In fact, the Alliance rolls out a plethora of names to sing the praise of its U-LPWAN protocol – American Tower, Senet, SenRa, Minol Zenner, Proximus, Bouygues Telecom, The Things Network, Swisscom, Digital Nordix, and Loriot. A brief perusal of the member list shows that there are a lot of big names involved in the project, including ARM, Cisco, IBM, and Google.

The alliance seems to be growing in strength, but the operator landscape is still somewhat fractured. The LoRa ecosystem is going to have to work out how devices will roam from network to network, which is going to require a lot of back-end integration and commercial carriage agreements – something the MNOs are all painfully familiar with. The field side of things seem to be solved, but it’s the business concerns that look most likely to hinder global progress – in solving the patchwork of networks that might soon be able to be deemed a global network.

The aforementioned executive departures at Sigfox are the latest in a long line of such reports from Light Reading, and do paint a fairly turbulent picture of the company. It has now shut its Boston and San Francisco offices, leaving it with just a presence in Dallas, and still hasn’t found a Sigfox Network Operator (SNO) to run the US network, nor one in Germany – two key markets that we expected would be keen to sign up a U-LPWAN technology like Sigfox, but which have proven surprisingly difficult.

Similarly, after its big climb-down, Sigfox admitted that numbers were much lower than we expected. Sigfox hasn’t said whether it made its target of 6mn active devices by the end of 2016, or its revenue target of some $80mn. If it has, then it should do a lot to quieten critics, but the company is far from the poster-boy of LPWAN that many expected it to become just a few short years ago.

New entrants to the U-LPWAN space shouldn’t be ruled out, either, especially if they can find a niche to corner. Sony has developed Eltres, a protocol that is similar to Sigfox but seems a little underpowered. With uplink-only, it appears, its use-cases seem quite limited, but there’s still room in the U-LPWAN space for players to kick doors down.