M2MAPPS: Sigfox has employed license-free spectrum to create a cellular network that is dedicated to M2M and the IoT. The obvious question is why? What is wrong with cellular technology?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: I’d like to start with a reminder that M2M and IoT applications come in numerous sizes and shapes. Those that need relatively high data rates work well with existing connectivity technologies, but many others only need to exchange small messages every so often. In this case there are issues: they include tariffs, energy consumption, coverage and scalability. The intrinsic design of regular cellular networks means that they cannot provide a cost-effective solution for low volume, low data rate traffic and that is why Sigfox took a different approach.
M2MAPPS: Can you summarize the key features of your technology?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: We offer connectivity out-of-the box so customers don’t need to know about the technology. We focus on low-throughput applications, which we define as a maximum of 140 message exchanges per object per day. Our network employs a patented radio technology that is based on UNB, Ultra Narrow-Band, which uses the license-free ISM bands. UNB allows messages to be sent over very long distances: the average rural range is between 30-50 km, which is an order of magnitude better than other technologies. This allowed us to deploy a nationwide network in France, which is a very large country, using 1,500 antennas to provide outdoor, indoor and underground coverage.
M2MAPPS: Are you marketing a network technology or a network service?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: You asked about the technology but we are marketing a service. Sigfox is a service provider. All a customer needs do is buy Sigfox compatible devices, UNB modems. They don’t need SIM cards or multi-band air interfaces. We issue IDs to the modem manufacturers, who subsequently give them to their customers, and then they use us, the service provider, to activate them. This allows each customer to manage their devices and subscribe to the messages they send.
M2MAPPS: At the end of the day it’s going to come down to cost and coverage. What was the cost of that nation-wide French network? And what apps are they running?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: I did coverage earlier. The cost of a network that size is between three and four million Euros but I’d like to add that we’ve started deploying networks in other countries. The French network is currently handling energy metering, security, and asset management. In addition there is fire detection solution for homes that is operated by one of the country’s biggest insurance companies. In those other countries, which will be announced at a later date, we are partnering with local companies, designated as Sigfox Network Operators. They will deploy and maintain the network. They will rent the sites, install the antennas and base stations and develop the business.
M2MAPPS: What about the modems. How much do they cost and who makes them.
THOMAS NICHOLLS: We’re targeting a price tag of one Euro. Right now they cost a bit more but we recently announced an agreement with Silicon Labs and they will be integrating our native protocol on their RF chips and that will bring the price down. Similar agreements with other semiconductor vendors are in the pipeline. I’d like to add something about subscription costs. In our case it includes all the tools needed to hook up to our API in order to retrieve the messages from our platform and insert them into the IT environment. This could be a mainstream application such as SAP or an Oracle database. We wouldn’t perform this task ourselves: we simply make it easy for the IT department or a systems integrator to do the integration.
M2MAPPS: What is specific to IoT connectivity compared to regular M2M?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: Regular M2M solutions were developed and continue to be developed for specific, vertical applications: a company that wanted to optimize its logistics would typically employ a fleet management solution. The design of these solutions is such that the company became the de facto owner of a network. This paradigm doesn’t work for IoT. In this case it had to be an out-of-the-box solution: no knowledge or even awareness of the network is required. That’s the way consumer devices like smartphones and tablets operate. Moreover we are starting to see the development and deployment of M2M solutions that work this way.
M2MAPPS: Does the relatively low-cost of your technology justify the deployment of application specific networks. I’m thinking of city centers, where cellular coverage tends to be poor?
THOMAS NICHOLLS: It does and we are active in this area. We are experiencing a lot of interest in Smart City applications. Sigfox is currently used in a major European capital outside France for a public parking solution. Around 30% of all traffic in major cities around the world is related to people searching for a parking place.