Sigfox introduces $0.20 Ivory option for disposable trackers

Sigfox’s World IoT Expo was a stage on which a raft of new deals was announced, expanding its coverage and partner ecosystem. The launch of Admiral Ivory, a disposable radio option for asset tracking was the most interesting piece of news, and Riot spoke with CEO Ludovic Le Moan to get the run-down of the news.

Le Moan said that the event was a success, with over a thousand attendees, and it was certainly a platform on which to announce a raft of new deals – which the company hopes will speed its growth. Sigfox has been growing steadily since its inception, but still hasn’t achieved the hockey-stick growth that many anticipated – although the same can be said of most IoT companies, given the apparent over-hyping that the industry collectively succumbed to.

Returning to Sigfox’s future, it has signed a large amount of low-volume deals that could quickly evolve into much larger contracts, should the customers enjoy success in the market. For Sigfox, that gives it a lot of chances for quick growth, as startups ramp up or enterprises expand successful pilots. The company hasn’t deviated from its plan to control the global network, but still has a lot of countries to add to its footprint.

Currently, the Sigfox network is present in 36 countries, with national coverage available in 17. Four new Sigfox Network Operators (SNOs) were announced at the Expo; Coginix (Costa Rica), IoT Ned Adria (Croatia, and Eastern Europe), IoT Tunisie (Tunisia), and Platt Nera (Thailand). The company says that its network now covers around 2.6-million square-kilometers.

Currently, there are three components to Sigfox’s offering, handled by three different names; Location (Atlas), Cognition (Monarch), and Connection (Admiral Blue and Admiral Ivory). The main draw of the Expo was the launch of Monarch and Admiral Ivory.

Sigfox also launched an onboarding service called Sunrise, that includes a Partner Network Portal, a portal for device makers and providers called Sigfox Build, and a portal for buying Sigfox devices called Sigfox Buy, which looks like it could significantly streamline the process of starting a trial or deployment.

Atlas (previously Sigfox Geolocation – unveiled a few months ago) is a location service for Sigfox devices that don’t have a GPS module, which uses the network information to calculate a device’s approximate location. The service is charged as a percentage of the monthly subscription fee, and is sold on its low cost and low energy consumption – not its accuracy.

Atlas uses the Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) to gauge location, not flight-time or Doppler shifts. For precise locations, Sigfox recommends adding GPS or WiFi to the device, but says that Atlas is good for anything over 500-meters – perfect for knowing what town an asset is in, but definitely not an option if you want to know which particular street or block it is located.

Monarch is the new radio-band recognition service, which lets a Sigfox module switch between unlicensed bands if it changes country. Designed for use in logistics and supply chain, as well as transport and consumer, the service aims to allow a “globetrotter asset” to hop between a European 868MHz band and into an FCC 915MHz band, without needing to be prompted by a cloud-based management system (which wouldn’t be able to reach the device anyway, due to the band-shift).

The two Admiral services cover the hardware designs that chipmakers use to build Sigfox-compatible modules. Admiral Blue is the conventional design, but the new Admiral Ivory design is very interesting. Unveiled at Sigfox’s event in Prague, it promises to turn “any short-range wireless device into a long-range IoT [one], with a hardware component as little as $0.20, and as simple as the one that you find in a garage door remote control.”

Sigfox hardware is already pretty simple, which is why some module providers can sell them for around $2 already. What Ivory promises is an adapter that can take a very simple design and add Sigfox compatibility, at a price-point that enables a disposable device and application.

Le Moan said that Ivory uses a different modulation scheme, which has a bit less range than the Blue design – around 5km with a small battery, apparently. The company has been in talks with mail carriers about using Ivory in their tracking products, but the new tech does not have any customers yet – mostly because prototypes are only just arriving, expected in the next few weeks.

In terms of network architecture, we wondered whether such customers would be adding Sigfox base stations to their warehouses, but Le Moan said that they would ideally be using the core network. Le Moan clarified that the dual-SNO situation in the UK is still unique, and that Arqiva, the original SNO, had failed to meet its agreements, and so lost out on its exclusivity deal. He added that full German coverage is due next year – one of the markets that Sigfox manages itself, including France and the US.

As for current MNO partners and customers, Telefonica (global), Taiwan Mobile (Taiwan), Altice (France), and T-Mobile (Czech Republic) are the current list. Le Moan, when prodded, noted that while some MNOs are pushing LoRa now, they don’t believe in the protocol long-term – and will eventually transition to a GSMA protocol.

He added that Sigfox doesn’t see the MNOs as a direct rival, in the same vein that a LoRa operator might, and that hardware costs mean that Sigfox could be added to cellular modules for essentially no increase in the bill of materials – making it an attractive option for those looking for redundancy backup.

As for the 3GPP standards process and the GSMA, Le Moan said that Sigfox is completely open to adding the protocol into the 3GPP – but of course, the MNOs won’t want to hand over control to Sigfox as a rival network operator. However, they could be incentivized, and Le Moan said that a favorable sub-20% price could be offered, to encourage the MNOs to re-sell Sigfox while receiving a margin per sale – acting as wholesalers or distributors, effectively.

We will keep our ears to the ground to gauge MNO receptiveness to this idea, but the MNOs themselves will be rather concerned with the transition to 5G. IoT deployments are being discussed in ten-year time-frames, and investing heavily into a single approach like NB-IoT or LTE-M and then finding that 5G provides a better answer could prove painful. In theory, Sigfox or LoRa could survive completely independently of GSMA decisions on standard inclusion, and MNOs might take some comfort from that – if the balance sheets support that, of course.

Sigfox is aiming to compete at an entirely separate price-point than LTE-M and NB-IoT, and its unlicensed LPWAN rival LoRa. It is perfectly happy to play a supporting role to the GSMA’s suite of IoT protocols, as well as to things like WiFi and GNSS, acting as a redundant backup connectivity option, or simply as a low-power way to check in routinely, keeping the higher-bandwidth and more power-hungry protocol in reserve until needed – helping to extend the battery life.

As for partner announcements, Alps Electric (specialist electronic component provider for the auto, industrial, and smartphone industries) chose Sigfox as its main LPWAN connectivity tech for future product developments, with the pair announcing a common customer collaboration partnership.

GCT Semiconductor announced the GDM7243I, the first hybrid SoC that supports Sigfox and LTE-M, NB-IoT, or EC-GSM-IoT. With the integrated design, developers could use the Sigfox connectivity to touch base with a network, allowing the comparatively power-hungry protocols to remain inactive – helping to get a longer battery life. The integrated design would remove the need for a dual-chip approach, which should lead to cheaper designs.

Bosch was on hand to unveil a new Sigfox extension module for its Cross Domain Developer Kit (XDK), consultancy firm Roland Berger announced the Ultra Value strategic partnership to target European enterprises, BrakeForceOne Mobility unveiled a Sigfox-powered bike and scooter tracking system, ON Semi announced what it claims is the most compact System-in-Package, the AX-SIP-SFEU. WISeKey also announced a new secure element for on-device security and encryption, called VaultIC184.