When Ludovic Le Moan and Christophe Fourtet founded Sigfox in 2010, they envisioned a future where internet-connected objects would play a role in economic and social development.
To realise that vision, they had to address the bugbears that have been holding back the proliferation of the internet of things (IoT) – the lack of a global network where devices could be deployed anywhere in the world at a low cost and the reliance on batteries to power sensors.
Sigfox is now inching closer to its vision, having established a global network of partner operators that enable enterprises to connect sensors across 32 countries, and at less than US$1 per device per month in markets such as Singapore. It hopes to expand its footprint to 60 countries by 2018.
Le Moan, who is also CEO of Sigfox, told Computer Weekly that the company’s low-power wide area network (LPWAN) technology would soon enable sensors to function without batteries, removing the need for maintenance. The sensors do not need to establish and maintain network connections with base stations, eliminating signalling overheads.
“We took time to roll out our technology because we wanted to spend time defining its specification to make it simple and power-efficient,” said Le Moan. Sigfox first deployed its network in France in June 2012.
Le Moan said there were detractors in the market that did not understand why Sigfox would develop a network for low-end devices, “but once they understood what we did, they started to be afraid and tried to compete”.
Sigfox’s main rivals in the LPWAN space are the Lora Alliance, whose technology is being implemented by HPE and Tata Communications in India, and telcos that tend to favour narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) because the technology is compatible with their cellular networks.
Although Le Moan says the market is big enough to support multiple players, he believes Sigfox’s ability to deliver service level agreements (SLAs) will enable it to stand out from the pack. “Today, no one outside Sigfox delivers SLAs because their architectures do not allow for that,” he said.
However, Le Moan said Sigfox is open to partnerships with mobile network operators in cases where customers require data rates higher than are currently offered by LPWAN. Sigfox supports up to 140 messages per object per day, with a 12-byte payload for each message.
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In fact, Sigfox has already begun partnering with telcos such as Spain’s Telefonica, which will integrate Sigfox’s low-powered connectivity into its managed connectivity platform.
Describing the move as a “smart approach”, Le Moan said that although Telefonica is likely to offer NB-IoT one day, the telco is committed to connecting up five million objects for enterprise customers that have been looking at Sigfox.
Sigfox’s technology remains proprietary for now, although Le Moan is not ruling out the possibility of turning it into an open platform based on open standards. “This is something we’re looking at,” he said. “We are willing to share the technology specifications, and are currently working with standardisation groups.”
But hooking up devices to IoT networks is only part of the equation. Le Moan said connectivity contributes only a small fraction of the IoT market, and the bigger slice of the pie is in delivering IoT applications and services, which he said will account for more than 80% of the market.
Le Moan said that Sigfox – which aims to be profitable in the fourth quarter of 2018 – has created a unit to develop IoT applications, such as asset tracking that will enable businesses to locate their assets so they can justify their amortisation and, in turn, their investments in the IoT.
“We are also partnering with Chinese manufacturers to transform any device into a connected device without the need for additional hardware,” he said, proclaiming this a killer app that will drive IoT adoption to a tipping point.
But success in the IoT marketplace will not be easy, even when the stars are aligned. “The market is fragmented,” said industry analyst Charles Reed Anderson at IoT Asia in March 2017. “There are a lot of suppliers and different messages going out to market, and there are still limited use cases. We need tens of thousands of use cases, not one or two.”