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Cellular Data Network for Inanimate Objects Goes Live in France

A startup hopes to connect millions of low-power sensors worldwide to the Internet, making everything—from power grids to home appliances—smarter.
November 13, 2012

All of the apps, movies, and games consumed on tablets and phones are only available because cellular networks deployed wireless technology to connect people to the Internet wherever they are. French startup SigFox thinks it can help usher in a second mobile Internet boom—by building cellular networks to serve not people but, well, things.

SigFox is focused on connecting cheap sensors and “dumb” home appliances to the Internet. The goal is to make all kinds of appliances and infrastructure, from power grids to microwave ovens, smarter by letting them share data. The general concept, known as “the Internet of Things,” has been discussed in academic circles for years, but it has yet to come to life.

The networks that serve humans are based on technology that isn’t suitable for sensors, says Thomas Nicholls, chief of business development and Internet of Things evangelism at SigFox. “If you compare with a GSM [cell-phone] network, then our solution is much cheaper, provides much lower energy consumption, and operates over a much longer range,” he says.

SigFox builds its networks in the same way as a cellular provider, using a system of connected antennas that each cover a particular area and link back to the operator’s central network. But the antennas use a different radio technology, developed by SigFox, known as ultra narrow band. This technology would not be of much use for streaming video to an iPhone, but it allows devices connecting to the network to consume very little energy, says Nicholls, and it allows for very long-range connections.

SigFox claims that a conventional cellular connection consumes 5,000 microwatts, but a two-way SigFox connection uses just 100. The company also says it is close to rolling out a network to the whole of France—an area larger than California—using just 1,000 antennas. Deployments are beginning in other European countries, and discussions are under way with U.S.-based cellular carriers about teaming up to roll out its technology stateside, says Nicholls. “SigFox can cover the entire U.S. territory with around 10,000 gateways, whereas a traditional cellular network operator needs at least several hundred thousand,” he says. This should make deployment significantly faster, and cheaper.

Further cost savings come from operating the technology on parts of the radio spectrum that are free to use. Cellular networks are operated on licensed spectrum, and as competition for data services has intensified, carriers in the U.S. and elsewhere have spent billions of dollars on such licenses. (SigFox uses 868MHz in Europe and 915MHz in the U.S.; frequencies are often used by cordless phones.) Nicholls says it should be possible for SigFox to offer its service to a connected device for as little as $1 a year.

The features that make SigFox’s network cheap to install and maintain have the downside of limiting the network’s speed. At best, it can currently transfer information at the rate of 100 bits per second; 3G mobile networks move data at least 1,000 times faster. That rules out some visions for the Internet of Things, such as distributing cheap video cameras or microphones across the world. But Nicholls says that his company’s focus is on making it cheap to install Internet-connected sensors.

Craig Foster, an analyst who follows Internet of Things technology for ABI Research, says that it makes sense to create extra networks. “Cellular won’t be feasible in many instances,” he says. “For one, there is not always universal coverage. Think rural smart meters.” Satellite connections or long-range technology solutions like SigFox’s have a better chance at extending the Internet’s reach to remote areas.

SigFox reports seeing most interest in its technology from companies trying to roll out so-called smart grids, an approach to electricity distribution that uses data from sensors throughout a power network—including in customers’ homes—to help improve efficiency and reliability. That tallies with Foster’s experience. “Government stimulus, environmental legislation, and the desire of utilities to increase operational efficiency have been key drivers,” he says.

Nicholls says that projects in other areas are also under way, and that he expects completely new ideas to surface once his company’s network is fully deployed. “We have clients that want to connect with water pipes underground, or monitor parking spaces to detect occupancy and power billing—they just can’t do that with GSM,” he says. A smart parking lot system based on SigFox’s network is coming soon in a “large European country,” he says, and a project in central Africa will use a SigFox network to monitor endangered animals at risk from poachers.

The technology could also find use in home medical devices and gadgets. Wi-Fi has been used for early projects such as Internet-connected bathroom scales and inhalers, but this wireless technology is far from a perfect fit. To save battery life, gadgets don’t keep a Wi-Fi connection active at all times, which can mean waiting a few seconds for a connection to be reestablished before using the device. A device with a SigFox connection could send data instantly, says Nicholls, without any Wi-Fi configuration or network.

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