HomeCarriersBackers back, bidders talk – the latest in the Sigfox saga as sale deadline looms

Backers back, bidders talk – the latest in the Sigfox saga as sale deadline looms

Last update from us on the Sigfox “soap opera” (someone else’s words), almost / perhaps, before the credits roll at the end of next week on its latest tangled episode (or the whole tragic series) – and as Enterprise IoT Insights breaks from straight news, momentarily, to write long-form reports and reacquaint itself with in-person trade shows. So where are we up to with Sigfox, before the hammer falls on its future on February 25? 

Firstly, the case for UnaBiz to acquire both Sigfox SA, the French firm’s main tech business, and Sigfox France, its France (and US) based networks, appears to have been emboldened. Credit to French tech publication, Journal du Net, which has the ear of the French IoT crowd, and has published a letter from nine “Sigfox ambassadors” – essentially IoT developers using Sigfox, among other technologies – throwing their weight behind the UnaBiz bid.

The letter, submitted to CBF Associés, in charge of the auction process, was masterminded by Paul Pinault, vice president of market strategy at France-based IoT solution provider Braincube, and author of the influential IoT blog Disk91. The letter states (in translation): “Unabiz has the assets to make a success of Sigfox; we are not saying [it] is better than other buyers, but it is, in our eyes, able to transform Sigfox into an economic success.”

Other signatories to the letter are: Marc Pous from Spain-based Balena, José Marcelino and Maria Carlina Hernandez at UK-based RAKwireless, Adrien Chapelet at France-based Invoxia, Mikael Falkvidd at Sweden-based Falkvidd Holding, Alexis Susset at Taiwan-based SORACOM, Yann Douze at the Sorbonne University, and Bassem Boshra at Egypt-based SpimeSenseLabs. The letter, it might be noted, was issued without UnaBiz’s involvement.

As an aside, Pinault’s blog on the Sigfox collapse on Disk91 makes for essential reading. He writes: “Sigfox still has a whole section of the IoT that no one else knows how to cover, ultra low-cost and ultra low-power, ultra-innovative sectors of the future. But innovating and pioneering without the support of recurring revenues in a more mature market remains a headlong rush that costs technical and commercial energy.”

UnaBiz has acknowledged its interest to compile a bid before the February 25 deadline, whether as a solo project or in a band setup, as (the leading) part of a consortium bid; its course will be defined in the coming days, and made clear after the hammer falls. UnaBiz (co-)leader Henri Bong – an important strategic ally for Sigfox in its early days, and a part of the Sigfox fabric itself for a time – has been banging the drum for a “unified LPWAN world” for a while. 

His business, once a Sigfox specialist, has been connecting LoRaWAN and cellular IoT for 12 months, at least. The new gang of “ambassadors” suggest the firm – Bong, essentially – knows enough about the French tech sector and about Sigfox itself to remake the business as a progressive enterprise, in a part of the market that is French-made, originally, and which might retain its accent with careful (albeit all/part Singapore-owned) stewardship from UnaBiz.

For his part, Bong is not saying anything, beyond a declaration of interest – although he is promoting his new support on social media. Since Enterprise IoT Insights last wrote on the matter, Semtech – which bought LoRa-creator Cycleo in 2012, the other French LPWA startup, and stands as the prime candidate for many to pick up its twin, and roll them together as a single solution for unlicensed IoT – has confirmed only that it will not confirm anything.

In other words, it will not comment “on any mergers and acquisitions“. Which is not a denial, but is not very helpful (to us) either, of course. Paris-based LoRaWAN network developer Actility, which shares a key investor (BPI France) with Sigfox, and remains the other obvious contender for the file, is not saying anything at all – even to confirm it is not saying anything. 

But BPI France has advocated historically that Sigfox and LoRaWAN should be reconciled in hardware, finally, and that Actility should be the one to do so. Plus, it is French – which may yet be a decisive factor in the matter. The other known bidder, originally identified by Journal du Net, is IoT provider Zekat Group, which has spoken with Enterprise IoT Insights since our last installment in the Sigfox narrative. 

Zekat Group is definitely interested, and would prefer – it says, without naming names – to join with another in a bid, probably from a Sigfox operator. Pressed on whether this might be UnaBiz, and whether it is in touch with UnaBiz (actually, everyone is in touch with UnaBiz; “Everyone knows Henri and Henri knows everyone,” said one commentator), Ludovic de Nicolay, managing director of the firm’s ‘digital cluster’ will not say.

But for sure, a combined bid with an outfit like Zekat Group would give a UnaBiz-led takeover a solid footing in France – which, as the questions below make clear, could be a deal-swinger for the administrator. De Nicolay remarks: “Sigfox is very interesting in terms of cost, power, simplicity – for asset tracking, and also for smart meters. We also think Sigfox combined with other tech, like LoRa and LTE-M, could be very good for certain applications.”

Zekat Group has two business pursuits; it makes electronic boards (“both big and small”), including for autonomous tram systems, and develops IoT solutions via its Ercogener unit for the manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture markets. It is privately owned (by founder and chief executive Pascal Denoël), and posted revenue of €24 million last year; it has been with Sigfox for five years, but has just shown a hybrid Sigfox-LoRa unit at CES in Las Vegas.

De Nicolay says: “We can combine both Sigfox and LoRa in the same hardware, and switch automatically – for example, from LoRa in a private network in a factory to Sigfox on public infrastructure to track asset between venues, and possibly back onto LoRa at the other end.” It is one of the first such hybrid LPWA units for unlicensed IoT coverage; the firm has 500 units, tested in “some industrial fields”, and wants to commercialise “in months”.

“The current news has changed the roadmap a little,” says de Nicolay. Ercogener was acquired in 2015, and its history backwards into cellular-based M2M; it wants its future to feature Sigfox still, alongside its slighter LoRa concerns and its developing LTE and 5G portfolios. The group is “constructing an offer” for the ailing French ultra narrowband provider, but it only wants the tech business (Sigfox SA). 

“We are undecided, whether to go it alone or work with another company on a bid,” he says, speaking (within a fast moving narrative) at the start of the week. “There are a lot of opportunities to develop Sigfox, but at the beginning there is perhaps some simplification of our ambition, and the running of the business. Because Sigfox Corp (SA) is basically a data and management backend, plus the IP for the tech. But that is pretty much all. 

“And then you have the Sigfox France, the Sifgox operator, which is more complicated to develop. But we really want to develop the business model and the ecosystem, and the revenue sharing [with operators] and everything. We want to open up the technology and make open partnerships – also because we don’t have all the competencies in-house, which is why we are talking to other players to combine an offer.”

De Nicolay hits on some key points; there are others, as well, if Sigfox is to be saved and remade, and presented back to the market again either as a viable alternative or loyal companion technology for unlicensed LPWA coverage, and a way to drive the fabled massive IoT segment. And, despite tangible excitement (“a golden opportunity,” said one source) there is also no guarantee it will be. “We are not going anywhere near that mess,” remarked one well-placed business, which might well be (but has not been) linked to a purchase.

So here are the key questions, which have come out of conversations with a wide range of commentators, including some of those quoted previously. (So, another update on the soap opera, then.)

To be continued… 

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