‘If you could deploy LoRa on a Sigfox network…’ – the case for low-power IoT crossover
Note this story is continued from a previous post, asking if it is ‘time for Sigfox and LoRaWAN to call a truce – and team up’. The previous entry can be found here.
Sometimes, the argument is so passionate and the logic is so clear, that it is best just to let the tape roll. This is the case with Henri Bong, co-founder and chief executive at Sigfox operator and IoT development house UnaBiz, based in Singapore and Japan. As previously reported, Bong is championing the unlikely notion that Sigfox and LoRaWAN, the rival kings of low-power IoT connectivity, might just call a truce – and even team up.
It is unlikely, even impossible, just because the two sides – in private conversation, on background, mostly ‘off-record’ – appear like they hate each other. Their close history, analogous tech, and shared vision have been divided between as tribal lore, and dished out like weird mythology, making them into warring brothers. That is how it seems, anyway. Of course, there is more serious-minded crossover between them.
Bong is giving voice to the most serious crossover of all; that they could join together, in some fashion, to battle against the cellular industry’s marauding into their low-power wide-area (LPWA) territories, principally with LTE-M and NB-IoT. The logic, as last time, is that Sigfox and LoRaWAN are perfectly complementary; that the weakness of each system is the strength of the other. But we should just press play on the tape. Here’s Bong, winding up…
“Sigfox is a great technology. It really is. It is by far the most optimised in terms of the radio part. The LoRa community knows that; they will tell you the same. UnaBiz has produced solutions with all these technologies – with LoRaWAN, NB-IoT, LTE-M – and Sigfox is the lowest maintenance, the lowest for energy consumption, and the lowest in terms of TCO (total cost of ownership), which is the most important thing today for the customer.
“For the simple reason the sensor isn’t always listening (LBT) to the network – like with LoRaWAN, which is closest in terms of energy consumption. It means the device is not sending its ID, as a handshake, in order to transmit the message, which means twice the traffic. With Sigfox, the message goes without asking. Just the way the protocol has been designed makes Sigfox very efficient in terms of TCO.
“But the business model, to lock everyone into a system – to lock down gateway manufacturers, to have exclusive operators in each country, to keep all the network data in cloud servers in Europe – has made it difficult. Because it is perceived as this closed, proprietary technology. And because, for example, customers want to keep their data in Singapore, or wherever.
“[By contrast] a very good ecosystem has developed around LoRaWAN, with a lot of suppliers all over the world, and good mindshare in the industry. The problem is every time they win a deal, they have this problem of coverage. They have to learn to become a network operator, and to deploy base stations here and there, and everywhere – especially when it is for tracking solutions in larger territories.
“Whereas Sigfox is the opposite. Sigfox operators have invested in infrastructure without any customers – in 70-odd countries in the world. So Sigfox can connect things, but it lacks the ‘mindshare’. It has been so bashed by the LoRa community, and by the cellular industry. But today, Sigfox has a really nice global network, and is pitching leads one-by-one.
“And yet the narrative in the market today is that Sigfox is weakening – that’s what the analyst reports say. Which is wrong – because the networks are there, and most Sigfox operators are in good shape. UnaBiz, for example, is profitable, with $20 million of revenue last year, and more than 1.3 million devices activated and deployed. Look at Japan, South Africa, Finland – these countries are all doing super well.
“But there is this crazy pressure and noise from the rest of the IoT ecosystem [that Sigfox is falling behind]. Which, again, is wrong. Because of the network and because of all the activity on it, and because there is a re-thinking today in Sigfox, about how to open the technology, and how to do business.”
Let’s pause the tape, again. Recent changes at Sigfox, most notably with the exit of co-founder and chief executive Ludovic Le Moan, but significantly also with the decision to migrate its entire IoT infrastructure to Google Cloud and its move to sell its wholly-owned Germany network to Sigfox operator Heliot Europe, have been well received. Le Moan had become an increasingly controversial figure; his replacement, Jeremy Prince, previously in charge of the company’s US operations, is considered a good appointment.
But the whole Sigfox model required a shakeup, the verdict goes. There remains talk the firm will look to sell its remaining Sigfox-owned French and US networks, as well, and to refocus on its core technology and loosen up constraints around the wider ecosystem. Bong is close with Le Moan; he was Sigfox’s first employee in Asia, back in 2016, just before it raised the €150 million Series E round, with new money from Alto Invest, Salesforce Ventures, Henri Seydoux, Swen CP, Tamer Group and Total.
Prior, he had engaged previously with both the Sigfox and LoRa (when it was still Cycleo, before Semtech’s $5 million purchase in 2012) startup communities in France, including with LoRaWAN stalwarts like Actility and Kerlink, as trade advisor for the French embassy in Beijing and Guangzhou, in charge of emerging tech. “To understand the future, you need to understand the past,” says Bong.
“I was out there because all these IoT protocols and technologies were coming from Europe, and mostly from France. They wanted to know more about all these French companies, this ‘French mafia’ they called it. So I knew them when they were all just serial entrepreneurs in the French tech industry, before they got ‘big’. I was the first to sell French LoRa and Sigfox base stations to Singtel in 2014.”
By now, he had joined Singapore Telecommunications (Singtel) as consultant for IoT technologies; Sigfox scooped him up from here, in charge of business development in the region. “I was travelling 20 hours a week, finding new Sigfox operators; we signed in Australia, New Zealand, Japan. When it came to Singapore and Taiwan, we already had 15 people doing business development. So I took a leap of faith, and we set up UnaBiz as a Sigfox operator.”
He turns his attention back to the present day, and the recent changes in senior personnel and strategy at Sigfox: “I am close to the former CEO, so I won’t say anything bad. But the new leadership team wants to open itself to more of a discussion, and to focus back on the core business – which is the radio technology, plus these very simplified back-end services, which are the same system in every country.”
He will not say any more on the thinking in Sigfox. But his influence within the Sigfox world is clear, and his ideas about Sigfox blurring somehow into the LoRaWAN ecosystem should be heard. He explains: “A collaboration would not mean all the LoRa folks have to switch to Sigfox. It would mean, firstly, they would be able to have better coverage in every country. It would open more markets for them. Because Sigfox has 70 countries ‘covered’, and probably two thirds well-covered – which means 85 percent population coverage.
“The LoRa Alliance has announced, what, that 115 countries are covered? But these are private networks. The thing with LoRaWAN is it only exists where customers are. The LoRa folks won’t deploy base stations just to ‘open’ a country – which is what Sigfox has done everywhere. The difference is Sigfox operators are licensed. We hold facility based operator (FBO) licences in Singapore and Taiwan – which took 18 months to get. We have priority access to rooftops, and a price that is protected by the government. It puts us at a level with the [cellular] operators.”
He adds: “So you understand when I talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each? I can tell you now, there is no LoRaWAN network in Singapore, and it would be almost impossible to deliver a LoRaWAN solution there – to learn, one day to another, how to get a licence, how to access a rooftop. It just won’t happen. But if you could deploy LoRaWAN on a Sigfox network, it would take two weeks. Because we are a telco like any other. We have access to all the rooftops, and adding an antenna is easy. That is what I believe in; that is what I am fighting for.”
So is the message to the LoRa community that if it wants LoRaWAN to be any more than a parochial kind of private network solution for battery-powered sensor devices – that if it wants to be able to offer nationwide tracking, for example – then teaming up with Sigfox could be a neat way to do it? That, actually, it has a friend in Sigfox, which can help it win new business and new global influence?
“Yes. Because most countries don’t have national LoRaWAN coverage; they don’t even have city-wide coverage. Today, for very localised use cases in smart buildings, for example, LoRaWAN makes total sense. But if you want to do outdoor tracking and so on, you are stuck. You are not going to achieve an ROI if you are deploying a LoRaWAN network for one tracking case – whereas we have structured so we have already made that investment and built that network.”
There is more, but we are out of time. We will pick up again next week.
To be continued…