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Silicon Valley to Get a Cellular Network, Just for Things

A French company plans to build a wireless slow lane for small, low-power devices.

San Francisco is set to get a new cellular network later this year, but it won’t help fix the city’s spotty mobile-phone coverage. This wireless network is exclusively for things.

The French company SigFox says it picked the Bay Area to demonstrate a wireless network intended to make it cheap and practical to link anything to the Internet, from smoke detectors to dog collars, bicycle locks, and water pipes.

Regular mobile networks are jammed with traffic from phone calls and people downloading videos. But for the Internet of things to become a reality, similar capabilities will need to be extended to billions of objects, many of them embedded in the environment and powered by small batteries. “If you want to get to billions of connections like that, you require a completely new type of network,” says Luke D’Arcy, director of SigFox’s operations in the U.S.

SigFox’s network, which is waiting on final approval of the company’s hardware from regulators, will cover the San Francisco peninsula from its urban tip to the sprawling Silicon Valley region 40 miles to the south. It will be the company’s first U.S. deployment of a network technology that already covers the whole of France, most of the Netherlands, and parts of Russia and Spain. SigFox built those by adding its own equipment to existing cell towers and radio antennas. Customers include the French insurance company MAAF, which offers smoke and motion detectors that notify homeowners with a text message on their phones when a sensor is triggered or needs a new battery.

The Silicon Valley network will use the unlicensed 915-megahertz spectrum band commonly used by cordless phones. Objects connected to SigFox’s network can operate at very low power but will be able to transmit at only 100 bits per second—slower by a factor of 1,000 than the networks that serve smartphones. But that could be enough for many applications.

Indeed, semiconductor companies like Intel and Broadcom are also in a race to make far cheaper, far smaller, and much-lower-power wireless chips. Several showed off these “miniature computers” at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. “They saw the cell phone turn into the smartphone, and so companies are saying ‘What is next?’ ” says David Blaauw, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan. Blaauw builds millimeter-scale wireless computers that he believes may one day report data from just about anywhere, even from inside a patient’s tumor.

A SigFox base station can serve a radius of tens of kilometers in the countryside and five kilometers in urban areas. To connect to the network, a device will need a $1 or $2 wireless chip that’s compatible, and customers will pay about $1 in service charges per year per device.

By reaching into the Bay Area first (with expansion to tech hubs such as Austin, Cambridge, and Boulder in its sights), SigFox hopes to catch the interest of a region where venture capitalists poured nearly $1 billion into startup companies focusing on the Internet of things last year, according to the research firm CB Insights. One of those startups, Whistle, makes a fitness-tracking collar for dogs. It has raised $6 million and is located in a corner of San Francisco that’s been called “IoT Town” thanks to its profusion of similar ventures.

Ben Jacobs, Whistle’s CEO, says the collar communicates by Bluetooth to a phone, or via a home Wi-Fi router. He says having a constant connection, anywhere in the city, would let Whistle add additional services, like a location beacon for lost pets. Right now that’s still not possible, since adding a conventional cellular phone connection to a collar would be too expensive. 

SigFox is in a hurry to get its network in place before competitors arrive. Jacob Sharony, a principal at the wireless consultancy Mobius Consulting, says large wireless companies are preparing machine-only networks as well, and these may operate at much higher speeds. A new long-range, low-power Wi-Fi standard that has the backing of some major U.S. companies, including Qualcomm, could hit the market in 2016. “It will likely be a major contender even though it is somewhat late to the game,” says Sharony.

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