Sigfox, the initiator of the “0G” network and the world’s largest dedicated wireless network built for IoT, is present in 71 countries on all five continents and currently covers over five million km2 and one billion people.
Intrigued by Sigfox’s growth, we decided to find out more and spoke to Glen Robinson, who is accountable for Global Sales & Marketing at Sigfox, about the company and its plans.
IoT Business News: What would you describe as your company’s priorities and challenges still to be overcome?
Glen Robinson (Sigfox): Our current priorities are all about scaling the number of things connected to our network. To achieve this, we have built a comprehensive ecosystem of partners across the IoT value chain. Presently we see no shortage of platform and application providers waiting to consume IoT data, but the devices/sensors that connects the “thing” is the critical success factor at this point in the IoT adoption cycle. IoT is complex because it’s where physical meets digital, or more specifically Hardware meets Firmware meets Software meets Platform like we’ve never seen before. It is too easy to assume that generic devices will connect most things. This is not the case, because battery life, environmental conditions, physical factors, business process consideration and cost sensitivities all affect hardware & firmware designs. These considerations make each client requirement subtly different, so neglect the hardware at your peril. Sigfox network architecture is purpose built to remove complexity and cost across the entire IoT solution, including simplifying the device/sensor, but even so our priority at the moment is partnering with highly competent electronics manufacturers, like Alps Alpine and LITE-ON, who can design and produce devices/sensors at quality, price and very importantly at scale.
What are your plans regarding satellite coverage? What will be the purpose of it?
GR: In partnership with Eutelsat we will launch our first low earth orbit satellites this year. The objective is to reinforce the current terrestrial coverage of our 0G network and to provide coverage required for specific use cases, for example, having 0G coverage across oceans, deserts or uninhabited environments opens up use cases in Oil & Gas, Maritime, Agriculture, Forestry, Mining and Civil Engineering, many of which are not economically viable using current available solutions.
Where do you see Sigfox really making its mark?
GR: Sigfox has already made a mark by disrupting the Wireless market with a “less is more solution” and by taking on the giants of Mobile Communications, by offering clients an IoT alternative that is economically viable at scale. We will continue making our mark in multiple ways, but three specific areas springing to mind.
Firstly, we are on track to provide the world’s first public global network able to connect things without roaming complexity or cost. Customers simply subscribe, activate and access their data via our global cloud platform. No need to own or operate your own network or cloud infrastructure.
Secondly, Sigfox is purpose built for IoT, which means our architecture is entirely optimised for connecting things using retrofit, integrated or ultimately disposable sensors. The things being connected are in many cases autonomous or abandoned objects. The technology architecture must therefore ensure efficiency and simplicity in power consumption, componentry, deployment and operational support. All of this becomes even more critical as we move from retrofit sensors to smaller and cheaper integrated and disposable sensors. Many competitive architectures already struggle with complexity, cost and power consumption, which is only going to get more difficult as sensors become integrated and disposable. This however is our purpose, this is what Sigfox is designed for and how IoT will scale to the massive volumes projected by the analysts.
Thirdly, the value of data. Data value must be measured by the cost and the return. To be justifiable, IoT solutions must generate data at a cost that is economically viable. Connecting 100 things at a price of 50€ p/device p/annum works, but when the requirements scales to 300,000 things then the economics become challenging. Sigfox is wholly focused on producing data at the lowest total cost of data production. Then, as we generate more data, we can correlate information and the benefits become even greater. For example, imagine connecting reusable industrial packaging via a platform that allows customer demand to be serviced by the nearest available supply. Consider the reduction in transportation miles, improved utilisation, reduced plastic waste and increased sustainability by transforming the industrial packaging industry to digital on-demand. The possibilities are endless when we make the once invisible become visible, at a cost that is economically viable.
What are the threats on the horizon that this industry should be wary of?
GR: Environmental impact and sustainability of IoT. Our planet cannot afford more electronic and plastic waste. Those involved in IoT need to find ways to balance the positive benefits of IoT with the increased usage of electronics and digital platforms. This will be achieved in two ways, firstly through technology innovations like energy harvesting, sustainable materials and integrated sensors. Secondly by building sustainability into the IoT business case so the net benefit of IoT outweighs the increased use of electronics and digital platforms, for example, increased asset utilisation, longer lifetime, less transport miles for inspect & collect all improve sustainability.
Is coverage mainly in the large cities or are you finding demand in rural areas to support agriculture?
GR: Our coverage plans are initially guided by population and then focus on densification based on demand. Keep in mind that the range of a Sigfox base station is significantly greater and significantly cheaper than Cellular, which is how we have expanded our network in a short space of time. Demand is a key driver, but our long range and low cost make the business case to cover less populated areas much easier to justify.
With the Sigfox model, do you charge only connectivity?
GR: Sigfox core revenue stream is from connectivity subscriptions and value-added services directly associated to connectivity, for example geolocation services that can be added onto the connectivity subscription. These offers are all transacted through our Sigfox Operator in the country. We also sell Network Infrastructure to the Sigfox Operators, which they use to deploy the networks, as well as Advanced Services to develop new features, products and services, usually driven by client demand.
Why is the UK slower than other European countries to adopt IoT via wide area networks?
GR: We believe the slower adoption in the UK has to do with the nature of their economy. Asset tracking is the biggest use case opportunity for IoT and if not the biggest, then certainly an area where the business benefits are most obvious. The UK imports marginally more than they export and is not known as a manufacturing hot spot. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many IoT asset tracking or supply chains decisions are made by the manufacturers outside the UK, hence a slower adoption in the UK. Sigfox is also seeing good adoption of IoT in Smart Buildings, or more specifically Facilities Management. This adoption is faster in countries with extreme climates, so heating and cooling is a significant cost and environments consideration. The UK has a moderate climate, so adoption of smart building solutions to manage temperature, humidity, comfort and energy has a slower adoption. Finally, Security is another very successful use case for Sigfox because our network architecture cannot be jammed like Cellular. We are therefore widely used for vehicle tracking and recovery, as well as the primary or secondary means of connectivity in home or business alarm systems. The UK is a safe place to live when compared to other parts of the world, where the adoption of this use case is undoubtedly faster than in the UK.
That said, the UK economy has a very healthy Service sector, where we are seeing the emergence of very interesting use cases. One client is using connected buttons for direct consumer marketing to simulate and capture a request for a test drive of a high-end motor brand, by pushing the “start button” on the package mailed to your home.
Other examples include preventative detection systems offered by insurance companies to reduce risk, whilst increasing client retention. We are also seeing adoption of our technology in healthcare, for example, a watch that does not require frequent charging, nor association to a mobile phone, nor high levels of technical savvy, which monitors specific health indicators and fall detection. We also have solutions designed to monitor irregular patterns of behaviour in vulnerable people living alone, which enables unobtrusive monitoring and therefore allows them to live safely in their own homes for as long as possible.
Can you give us a business update since the turn of the year when Sigfox reported reaching 15 million connected devices?
GR: We are now at 16 million devices and transporting about 27 million messages a day on our network. We have seen a slight slowdown in device activations during the COVID 19 pandemic. This is to be expected because installation schedules have naturally slowed due to lock-down restriction. We continue to expand the network with Russia being a recent addition to the Sigfox community. We continue to see growth of Asset Tracking in Supply Chain & Logistics, Condition Monitoring particularity in Facilities Management and Security applications where we are being used as a primary and secondary means of connectivity due to the anti-jamming characteristics of our network. Finally, we have seen a marked increase in Healthcare enquiries, which is undoubtedly fuelled by COVID 19.
How close in commercial terms are you to getting tracking devices available for the under $1 target – is it viable in production terms just yet and how close are you to reaching it?
GR: At our last Sigfox Connect event in Singapore we used a $1 button to play a game of global bingo. The reference architecture for this device uses a module costing 20 cents. We know we can achieve the price point, but other factors need to mature before it is viable for tracking in an industrial context, for example, we need manufacturers to integrate sensors at point of production. This removes the additional cost of device casings. We need battery technology and energy harvesting to develop to ensure maximum lifetime at minimum cost. All of this is accelerating as market demand increases. Sigfox is designed for this purpose, we are well positioned and anticipating these developments.
Do you have any other big deals in the pipeline that you can share with us?
GR: We can talk about recent wins with Nicigas, where we are currently deploying hundreds of thousands of smart gas meters in APAC, or An Post in Ireland where we are tracking Postal trollies and we continue to see increased adoption of our solution with DHL. I won’t mention names, but you can expect Asset Tracking wins in Automotive, Postal, Chemical and Beer companies in 2020. We have also secured another big contract of a million devices with a vehicle tracking and recovery company in South Africa. We continue to win business in Facilities Management and I’m excited about the growth of Healthcare opportunities in our pipeline.