‘Open to any discussion’ – Sigfox on hooking up with LoRaWAN, scaling up with Google
Let’s cut to the chase: will Sigfox and LoRaWAN, painted as arch rivals at the low-power end of the IoT space, ever be combined into a single IoT solution? Will the owners of these twin technologies, which have propped up large parts of the IoT industry until now, ever sit down across a table together? Will they ever shake hands on the idea their technologies are complementary, in ways, cut from the same cloth in some kind of jigsaw symmetry?
Will they realise, as advocates on both sides have proclaimed, their fight is a common one? Because, you know, we want to know – like with Noel and Liam, Rachel and Ross, William and Harry. Will they make friends? Well, we have half an answer, sort of: yes, sure, why not? So says Sigfox; the “besieged castle” stage is over, the market is big enough (bigger than ever dreamed), and nothing, not even hyped-up rivalries, should get in the way of new business.
Of course, logic says these sides talk, already, and Sigfox suggests the competition is amped up in the press. But the firm has a new management team in place, presenting a developing strategy that trades some of the old paranoia, perhaps, for new pragmatism. Speaking with Enterprise IoT Insights a couple of weeks back, the company’s new chief and deputy chief executives, Jeremy Prince and Franck Siegel, put some distance between the old regime.
Prince remarks: “Everyone has their different style. Frank, myself – we are totally open to any kind of discussion, and finding ways to accelerate the market together with other technologies, and so on. We know we can also adapt our platform to handle other technologies, if needed. We are way past the besieged-castle stage; we are open to discussion [about building the market together, as required].”
Which sounds like Sigfox, without naming names, will talk with anyone, even team-LoRa – like it is not writing-off a relationship with LoRaWAN of some kind? Is that the case? Prince responds: “Look, we know Sigfox has unique advantages for tracking and monitoring. But customers don’t care, really, if they are using Sigfox, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT. You take your electricity from wherever; what matters is the lights stay on. And some customers need a combination.
“So, yes, why not? We know where we are best-in-class, and we will sell Sigfox in those cases. But if the customer wants something else on top, why try to force-feed the wrong solution? And it goes for mobile operators, too. They could well sell Sigfox connectivity, if they wanted, to complete what they’re selling on their own. Because there isn’t one technology for everything; you can’t just sell what you want. We will work with others to bring the right solution.”
But, hang on, where were we? There are some gaps in the story since last time. Sigfox’s gear-shift into a new ‘connectivity’ phase, in time for the market’s long-delayed move on ‘massive IoT’, was always on the cards, it says. The firm kicked the tyres and spent the money, through an initial ‘build’ phase to develop the tech (2010-14) and a globe-trotting ‘expansion’ phase to construct the network (2014-20).
It is now ready to go, it says – to pile on the traffic, and be proved right about the rich promise of IoT. But there is some housekeeping first. In retrospect, the exit of co-founder and agitator-in-chief, Ludovic Le Moan, was inevitable, and probably necessary. The dual promotions of USA boss Prince as chief exec, and finance chief Siegel as his deputy, have provided continuity, and also a break from old startup culture.
They are better to deal with the corporate minutiae of a scaleup, they imply. But what about the rest of the domestic science – the sale of its last operating companies, the migration of its parochial IT setup onto a hyper-scaler cloud, the loosening of constraints around its technology and ecosystem – to put Sigfox on a path to ‘industrialization’? Because these appear like gateway passes to unlock massive-scale IoT, and this new ‘connectivity’ phase.
Prince and Siegel deal with each of these developments in turn – and place them, every time, in the context of a single strategic narrative, which has never shifted from its course. The sale of the German operation in September to Swiss operator Heliot Europe, acquired as part of the deal by Luxembourg venture firm Cube Infrastructure Managers, is the domino-sale to knock over the remaining Sigfox-owned operations, says Prince.
“Sigfox relies on independent operators. There were always three exceptions to that rule: in France, Germany, and the US. But it was never the strategy to own networks; it was never in our DNA. The idea was always to go with operator-partners, except for those exceptions. And we have sold Germany, and we are looking to sell the others. We are going back to our core strategy, to invest in Sigfox Corp. So it is good for us, and good for operator-partners.
“We need strong operators in every country. We are happy with Germany, because a Sigfox operator that knows the Sigfox game has acquired a Sigfox network – backed by an infrastructure fund to accelerate it just as IoT is taking off. It might be seen as a change of strategy, but it is not; it is just the latest phase in a plan that goes back to the start – and which benefits Sigfox itself, and Sigfox in Germany. So we want to do the same in France and the US.”
Does the team expect the French and US networks to go to Sigfox operators, as well? “France; maybe, just because it is Europe. The US; no.” The response is left hanging, and talk moves onto the deal with Google, announced in February, to shift the company’s cloud infrastructure away from its headquarters in Toulouse. It was Siegel’s negotiation, and he picks up the thread.
To absorb hundreds of millions of messages (“billions, one day”), the Sigfox platform has to scale, he reasons. He goes back to the start, again: “Sigfox set out to create the IoT space. We had to take charge of everything – the devices, the chipset and radio components, the base stations, the cloud. Which is how it started. We created everything, in order to create the whole market. But all of that needs to be industrialised to move to massive IoT.
“It requires us to focus on core strengths, and ours is not in cloud infrastructure. So we have outsourced to the best in the world – to leverage security components, to enable scale, to engineer economics, to get around all the data sovereignty constraints that go with a centralised infrastructure. It means, as well, we can accelerate time-to-market for new services. By working with Google, we can leverage its innovation, and its ecosystem of partners.”
What about the Sigfox ecosystem, beyond the roster of operator partners propping up networks in 72 markets? Because, across the way, the LoRaWAN developer party looks like it is hopping, and Sigfox retains a reputation as a closed shop for third-party IoT wizardry. Word is the ecosystem is opening up, and Sigfox is focusing on its core tech, at the same time. Prince rolls the story backwards, again, and restates the upside of Sigfox versus rival tech.
He responds: “Let’s think where we are, and where we’re headed. Because our position, right now, is we have a unique technology, a proprietary tech, which is also open to a whole ecosystem. The counter-argument is that it is a ‘closed’ technology. But the truth is it is a technology anyone can use, free of charge, to build a device or a solution. The difference is it is ours, and we make sure it meets our standards. But we don’t ask for loyalties or anything.
“So we have this tech, this end-to-end platform, this global network. Going forward, we need to keep investing; our technology has always been lowest for TCO. Because it is not just about the connectivity; it is about the device, the backhaul, and so on. The least expensive device in the Sigfox ecosystem is €1, and we want costs to go lower. Every time you lower the cost you open new possibilities. And we think we can reach costs that are similar to RFID.”
Phew; there is a lot in there to unpack. Too much, perhaps, if we are ever to get back to the headline subject. But just quickly; the ‘dollar tracker’ has been the holy grail for every IoT technology since almost-forever, and Sigfox is the closest, by far, to chuffing on the eternal promise of cheap IoT. The logic is a customer like DHL, a headline act on its books, will go “from connecting hundreds of thousands of carts to connecting hundreds of millions of parcels”.
Its €1 device is not a tracker, actually; it is a panic button, used in the hospitality industry, for example, or marketing apps. But talk about bringing IoT costs down to RFID levels – cheaper than printed barcodes if you count scanning – is typical of its innovation. Equally, the idea Sigfox will ‘open’ up to developers is wrong; the firm has a two-speed agenda, working with startups on R&D to drive costs lower, and with industrial behemoths to drive production higher.
Prince explains: “We were very active with startups when we were putting the technology together. But that time has passed; that time of validation has gone. The tech is proven, and the cadence has shifted. We are still active in the innovation ecosystem to push the boundaries of ultra low power and sustainability. But massive IoT means massive production. Which is why we signed with Google, Alps Alpine, STMicro, all of them – to produce devices in millions.”
Devices in millions? Or billions, even? Sigfox’s bonkers target from 2019 to hit a billion device connections by 2023 (now only 18 months away) looks madder than ever. But the dam is about to burst, it says, and the canals have been dug and the vessels launched; they just need to be loaded-up and carried along. This conviction, plus the new management changes and clearer yin-yang with the likes of LoRa, makes the company appear more at ease.
Prince talks about hook-ups with one-time rivals like everyone is doing it. Indeed, the whole subject of hybrid IoT has been well written in these pages, but has typically mixed-and-matched shorter and longer-range standards, like Bluetooth, WI-Fi, and any one of the low-power wide-area (LPWA) brigade; sometimes cellular is mentioned with non-cellular LPWA. But rarely have Sigfox and LoRaWAN (or NB-IoT or MIOTY) ever been pitched together.
He responds: “Analysts were wrong about when it would take off, because it has come later, and also the size of it. Because it will be bigger than they expected – and they already think it will be big. So we are not very interested in fighting against anyone. It is just about picking the right segment and use cases that match your technology. And we have best-in-class advantages for tracking, and monitoring in many cases, so that is what we will focus on.
“But I don’t see it as one market. It is different segments, with different use cases, and different technologies – which have advantages and limitations. And let’s face it, in the case of Sigfox, the technology is limited from a data point of view. Our messages are 12 bytes, and our max plan is 140 messages per day. Plus there is a small latency, which you or I would not notice. But with those limitations, we can still address a huge number of use cases.”
He goes on: “Sigfox is the most affordable, lowest power, longest lasting, and the only roamless technology. But it is not about listing benefits, either; it is just understanding there are different segments, use cases, and technologies. There is overlap of course, and competition. But in most cases we complete rather than compete. It isn’t as much fun to write about. Which is why there has been so much about competition.
“But, sure, the Sigfox and LoRa stories run in parallel – they’re both from France, from some years ago; both with charismatic founders. So, yes, you know, ‘let’s start a fight’. But the fight is more about the fact the IoT market is finally shaking up, and it should be a common fight. Because there is space for everyone in this market, and it is huge, and coming now.”
Which brings us back to the start. Just to finish, is there a way to flesh-out a crossover scenario with LoRaWAN? Because, as before, hybrid IoT is a tech mashup in LPWA solutions, which brings short-range Bluetooth beaconing or Wi-Fi ‘sniffing’ or GNSS positioning into wide-area sensor networks. With Sigfox and LoRaWAN, the tech profiles are too similar, even if the business models are polar opposites. So when, why, and how should these be combined?
The answer is because of their business models; Sigfox has sought to build publicly-available infrastructure in every country possible, where LoRaWAN networks mostly exist as private affairs, built-to-spec in factories, industrial plants, ports, airports, parking lots, and variously between. As such, there are useful advantages with geographic coverage for both companies from teaming up. Prince wants certain clauses inserted into his answer.
He says: “Just in theory, just to illustrate – because there are no talks. So put in whatever asterisks and parentheses. But we are in 72 countries, but we aren’t in China – because the idea of a shared public network is difficult. LoRa has private networks in China, with customers limited to China. So, we could offer customers shipping containers around the world a way to track in China as well, just by switching to LoRaWAN when the ship docks in China.
“And we would share the benefit with the local LoRaWAN provider, so its customers can track assets on Sigfox when they leave their networks in China. Because we are the only one with a global network, and it would make sense for LoRa customers to use it. And because customers care about the data, not the technology. So if it makes business sense, we will support it. We are not dogmatic about the tech, like in the past. We are not closed to the idea.”