Does your fitness tracker need its own cellular network? Sigfox think so.
Phone carriers like AT&TT +0.00% and Verizon love talking about the “Internet of Things” — the tech industry’s buzzword for the hooking the entire physical world up to the internet. But adding a conventional cellular modem is going to suck up a lot of power, and these kinds of devices need a low power way of connecting to the internet.
Sigfox’s answer is a wireless network that specializes in communicating with millions of low-power devices that don’t deal with large streams of data. The Toulouse, France-based company’s network is already covering almost all of France and Spain.
Now Sigfox is pushing hard into the US. At an event on Tuesday, the company is announcing it has complete coverage of San Francisco, and is planning coverage for a total of 10 US cities by the first quarter of 2016: San Francisco, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and San Jose. Allen Proithis, a former HP executive, is leading this US rollout as Sigfox’s president of North America and the regional headquarters will be based in Boston.
For the San Francisco rollout, Sigfox has around 20 of its briefcase-sized base stations on the top of buildings around the city. It partnered with the city of San Francisco to reserve space on these buildings.
Sigfox’s network is able to handle tiny packets of data. These are small 12-byte messages — not enough for streaming video. Instead of phones, Sigfox’s wireless network is tailored for everything else you might want to hook up to the internet: parking meters, fire alarms, moisture sensors out in a farm field, or even wearables. In Europe, for example, Swedish security giant Securitas has built home security monitoring products that hook up to the Sigfox network. For the initial US rollout, smart electricity meter maker Glen Canyon is announcing that it will use the Sigfox network.
Building out Sigfox’s wireless network infrastructure is a lot less costly than putting together a phone network, the company said. The network runs on the unlicensed wireless spectrum band of 900 megahertz in the US, so the company doesn’t need to acquire licensed spectrum. For a geographical location like the size of the entire state of California, Sigfox estimates it only needs around 1,500 microcells compared to something like 20,000 for a traditional cellular network, said Thomas Nicholls, the executive vice president of communication at Sigfox, in an interview with Forbes in July. It took only 12 months to get its network to cover all of Spain, Nicholls said. The company partners with existing cell tower owners and uses off-the-shelf hardware. Once the company achieves scale in a region, the idea is to provide a subscription for access to the Sigfox network for around $1 a year per device.
For device makers, they have to install a radio chip that costs less than $2 and comes loaded with the Sigfox firmware. Chip vendors such as Texas InstrumentsTXN -1.75% and Silicon Laboratories are selling these Sigfox chips. Samsung, an investor in the company, is also starting to build Sigfox connectivity into its Artik chips, which are designed for low-powered devices in the Internet of Things market.
Samsung, along with chipmaker IntelINTC +0.00% and Spanish telecom Telefónica, have poured more than $150 million into the company.
Although traditional mobile network operators are also going after the growing market around the Internet of Things, Sigfox sees opportunities to partner with them. For example, AT&T is switching off its 2G network by the end of 2016, but there are still many devices running on it. AT&T could partner with Sigfox to pick up those connections. Said Sigfox’s Proithis, “US carriers are still trying to figure us out.”
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