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9 November 2018

Sigfox attempts offensive, with new hardware and 1bn people covered

Towards the end of last month, Sigfox held its Sigfox Connect annual event, in which a number of announcements outlining the future of the unlicensed spectrum LPWAN (U-LPWAN) operator were made. After the great climbdown, we’re treating Sigfox claims with a lot more skepticism than previously, but if accurate, the company might be on a bath to finally breaking the double-digit millions barrier.

At the show, Sigfox announced that 53 countries now had active Sigfox networks, thanks to the recent addition of Austria, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Lichtenstein, Norway, Peru, and Romania. In total, Sigfox claims that its network, which is installed an run by Sigfox Network Operators (SNOs) under exclusive licenses, covers 1bn people.

We do disagree with that latter part of Sigfox’s claim that ‘what was one of the biggest bets ever made by a European company has become reality,’ but there are some encouraging signs. SqwidNet, the South African SNO, announced that it had signed deals to connect 2.5mn devices in the country, which is as many as Sigfox had installed as of February 2018. Of course, SqwidNet has to ramp up those installations, but the news was good for Sigfox – releasing the details in the run up to Sigfox Connect.

Sigfox also pointed to improvements in its hardware ecosystem, reiterating its claim that $2 modules are widely available, and that a $0.20c design is available to industrial-scale customers. These very low prices are possible on account of the low relative complexity of the Sigfox protocol and network, in which most of the signal processing is done in the cloud and not at all on the devices.

Our upcoming LPWAN forecast will examine the market in far more detail than is possible here, but it is worth stressing that Sigfox is competing at a different tier than the likes of L-LPWAN and LoRa. It is happy being a redundant connection, and is targeting applications that really don’t need to send much of any data.

While its earliest marketing might have pushed the protocol as an option to nearly directly rival LoRa, it is now focused on lower-value applications – ones where latency and SLAs are far less of a concern than other LPWAN rivals. It still has a very big hill to climb, and talk of IPOs has greatly diminished, but the company can still turn this boat around. It’s just going to take it far longer to hit 10mn active devices than most people anticipated, and all the while it is losing ground to L-LPWAN and LoRa.

Sigfox turned on its Atlas WiFi service at the event. The system essentially looks for nearby WiFi networks, and then reports any networks it sniffs out to the cloud platform. An integration with Here, the automotive mapping firm that is building a global IoT data platform, the Open Location Platform, then lets Sigfox work out where that particular device is, based on the data that Here has on hand.

While Atlas is now live, it does not yet have any public customers. Sigfox says it has live use cases in air transport, luggage/trolley management, stolen vehicle recovery, industrial asset management, and shipping container tracking, but we cannot confirm names of these potential customers.

New network infrastructure was also unveiled at the event. The Sigfox Access Station Micro is, as the name suggests, a small Sigfox base station, which Sigfox says is the most versatile and cost-efficient Sigfox gateway. The datasheet is available here, but the unit is very minimal – with only the Ethernet and a USB 2.0 port exposed. The USB port is intended to house backup cellular connectivity, via dongle, according to the manual, something that might bring glee to L-LPWAN advocates.

Sigfox does not break out what percent of its revenues are derived from its SNO licensing agreements and the sale of its networking equipment, for which it is still the only provider, but we believe that these fees account for more than the per-device connectivity revenue, currently. We cannot find pricing anywhere, unsurprisingly.

The Access Station Micro has Power-over-Ethernet, and an integrated antenna. To this end, Sigfox says it can be installed within minutes, connected to an Ethernet network or a cellular MNO network. It is IP65 rated, and is intended to be installed in areas that might not have suitable macro-cell coverage – a way to fill in any gaps. STMicro and ON Semi also announced new silicon options for developers and customers.

The other piece of hardware that Sigfox revealed was the Bubble. It is a small device that is intended to serve as a fixed point that can be identified inside the global network. Acting as a transmitter, Sigfox can adjust its emission power, and so alter the range of the Bubble. This lets Sigfox locate Sigfox devices that come within range of the Bubble unit, which should provide it with a higher degree of location accuracy. Sigfox claims a Bubble can be set to a one-meter range to a hundred meters.

It’s an interesting device, and one that makes a lot of sense for companies that might only need a few areas covered, rather than an entire country. Bubbles installed at depots or warehouses, or even along a particular route, could provide a local fleet operator with all the data they might need. Of course, LoRa advocates would argue that their rival U-LPWAN technology could do much the same, and if privately owned, forgo the connectivity fees.

In the UK, WND announced that it had installed 1,000 Sigfox gateways, quickly eclipsing the rollout that initial SNO Arqiva had managed. WND’s UK wing says that it now covers 50mn UK residents, although it seems that they’ve missed out Wales and much of Scotland apart from the main cities.

South Wales has plenty of potential connections lurking in it, while central and North Wales are much like the Northern and Western edges of Scotland – rural, very scenic, and full of sheep. While urban centers and sprawl are the better areas to focus on initially, achieving full geographic coverage is something that all LPWAN operators should be striving for.