At the beginning of June, Sigfox, a recently established French company, launched the first cellular network fully dedicated to low-throughput M2M and IoT communications.
Interview with Ludovic Le Moan, CEO of Sigfox and Christophe Fourtet, CTO and founder of the company, by the M2M World News team.
- How did you come up with the idea of a cellular network dedicated to Machine-to-Machine?
L. Le Moan: The idea is the result of a meeting with Christophe Fourtet combined with several years spent on the M2M market trying to develop solutions based on GPRS. Over 7 years, I’ve seen many projects stopped mainly because of an unsolvable economical equation.
- What are the advantages of your network?
L. Le Moan: The key advantage of our network is how simple it is to set up. This means it has low deployment and management costs, allowing us to offer groundbreaking tariffs for low-throughput data communications. In addition, we are using very low emission power which guarantees excellent stand-by time for any sensor connected to our network.
- According to your estimations, what percentage of the M2M market can be addressed with low-throughput communications?
L. Le Moan: Well, it depends on whether we answer the question in terms of the volume of connected objects or in terms of revenue. Concerning the numbers, my estimate is that 80% of the objects to be connected could be managed through low data-rate communications. In terms of revenue, I believe it corresponds to 50% of the market.
- In your opinion, are existing and proven cellular communication technologies such as GSM insufficient to meet the needs of M2M and IoT applications? Are you addressing the same markets as existing M2M mobile operators?
L. Le Moan: The cellular networks currently in place cannot support the connections and flows that will be generated by the billions of objects of the Internet of Things, even though they have very little data to transmit. The analogy we could make is using a pipeline to feed a sprinkler. Moreover, the Internet of Things, in order to become a reality, requires ultra low-cost and low-power communications which cannot be achieved today by the mobile operators. Nevertheless, we believe that there is room and opportunity for both low and high-throughput cellular solutions and we are open to working with mobile operators to complement their services.
- You have announced very aggressive prices for your communications, at least 10 times lower than the competing solutions. What is the price of your UNB* modems?
L. Le Moan: The Ultra Narrow Band modems are designed and manufactured by well-known partners, and they are offered at prices around 10€ per unit. In bulk, their cost will quickly drop below 5€ and we anticipate that within 24 months, we’ll have solutions below 1€.
- M2M communications require a high level of reliability and a long service lifespan. How are you going to address these two factors?
L. Le Moan: The Sigfox network supports low-throughput data communications and the protocol has been designed to offer optimal quality of service even when operated within the ISM band. After 3 years of intense development and testing, completed by the multiple field tests performed by our industrial customers, we are very confident about our solution, both in terms of performance and robustness. This has enabled us to sign several Machine-to-Machine contracts requiring high levels of quality and commitment of service.
- The M2M and the Internet of Things markets are in need of international technological standards. Do you think that a proprietary technology like the UNB* can find its place here?
C. Fourtet: Our system has been designed and calculated to offer a high capacity of connections within the ISM frequency bands, which are complex to use because of the shared spectrum and even though we expect growing use of those frequencies.
We therefore have the capability to commercially deploy our solution without having to wait for M2M standardization whether at the system or spectrum level.
But we do believe that, at some point, the Machine-to-Machine and Internet of Things solutions will somehow be standardized and that our system will be very well positioned to be adopted as standard for low-throughput communications. We have already started to work with this in mind.
- You present the Sigfox technology as a very low energy solution, both at network and at terminal (modem) levels. How can you guarantee a robust signal and communication using such a low energy level?
C. Fourtet: Our systems have a large « cognitive » capacity, which translates into a high selectivity level and built with auto-adaptive mechanisms. Therefore, the impact of a standard signal on our own signals is very weak and vice versa.
To reach this goal, we have embedded the intelligence and signal processing « tricks » within the network nodes, thus keeping the customer’s radio terminal as simple as possible. The network infrastructure is designed to serve the terminals. The reason our network nodes are so low-energy is that we have made many innovations in the signal processing.
- On which frequency bands are you going to operate on a global scale?
C. Fourtet: As already mentioned, the entire system has been calculated to efficiently and safely operate within different frequency bands such as the possibly crowded ISM spectrum. We achieve such a performance level thanks to our technical choices at radio (Ultra Narrow Band*), protocol (FSFDMA** access) and signal processing levels.
If, in the future, frequency bands are specifically allocated for M2M / IoT, our solution will be perfectly placed to operate in any dedicated spectrum.
- What are the possible evolutions of the UNB technology?
C. Fourtet: We already have new features in our roadmap such as geolocation, variable throughput to be able to reach objects that are deeply embedded or increase the data rate for easy to reach objects. We’ll also have new security classes as well as mobility management.
- Sigfox is positioned as an M2M/IoT operator with ambitious objectives in terms of both number of objects connected and geographical footprint. Which areas are you focusing on as a priority?
L. Le Moan: We will initially target Europe. But we are also considering extending our solution to the rest of world assuming that our network complies with all the applicable regulations in the target countries. In addition, the deployment of a UNB network is extremely fast compared to a “standard” cellular network.
- Do you intend to become a worldwide operator or are you considering licensing your solution within a certain number of countries?
L. Le Moan: We are having discussions with the established mobile operators to offer to extend their services and offer low-throughput communications using our solution. This could lead to signed partnerships, which would also accelerate our service deployment.
Thank you for answers.