‘Sigfox is the future Unabiz has to avoid’ – Unabiz seeks to unite broken IoT market
Philippe Chiu has been sleeping for three hours a night, he says, for six months. He has taken to power-napping, like he is “at college again”, he says. “Twenty minutes gets you three hours. And it works – because it is good sleep. So, you know, if I suddenly vanish…” Thankfully, he doesn’t; he remains in place – away from the crowds in the Palais des Congrès, coffee in one hand, fist-bumping passing delegates with the other – talking easily for an hour or more about how his firm will remake Sigfox as a team-tech in a collaborative new era for massive IoT.
But he is out of place here; despite the lanyard around his neck, and the welcome in the hall, he remains an interloper from the other side of the low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT divide. We meet – unexpectedly, unsurprisingly – at LoRaWAN World Expo in Paris (see, LoRaWAN goes [Iggy] pop), the annual shindig for the LoRaWAN crowd, traditionally painted into the blue corner in the Big IoT Faceoff between French-born IoT tech. But then Sigfox went into the red, properly – and almost vanished, but for the late intervention of Chiu’s firm, Unabiz – and the whole low-power IoT market grew up.
Grew-up, how? Because the talk in Paris (at the start of July) was about a more collaborative approach to IoT infrastructure-building. This was the big message from the show; and the LoRaWAN community – spurred (though not led, actually) by the Helium model for crowd-sourced community networks, plus Amazon’s parallel work with LoRa for back-yard coverage, and its own rapid development of satellite IoT systems – appears, more than rival camps, to have settled on the novel concept of a shared future, where a problem-halved is a market-multiplied.
Indeed, the most forward-thinking LoRaWAN companies in Paris talked (at least, at last) like they have looked up from their sandboxes, and made eyes across the playground – to combine in a more open fashion on solutions that are properly massive, globally available, and apparently simple (even if they are inherently complex). The kind of multimodal international and interstellar roaming deals being worked around speculative winners-take-some revenue shares by the likes of Senet are good examples. But these companies are focused squarely, for now, on LoRaWAN.
For Unabiz, and for Chiu, the firm’s co-founder and co-chief (and acting tech chief), the ambition is to go further with Sigfox – from a start-position that is way behind to an end-position that is way beyond. This is old talk, of course, from before Unabiz first engaged, six sleepless months ago, in the process to raise Sigfox out of receivership. Chiu’s double at Unabiz, his childhood ami and fellow-FBC (French-born Chinese), Henri Bong, has spoken before in these pages about a ‘unified LPWAN world’, where sundry LPWA tech is combined and vanished-for-the-user from IoT.
Chiu is here with the LoRaWAN brigade in Paris – and on tour subsequently with TS-UNB (MIOTY), Wi-SUN, and Wize, and probably other rival IoT teams, as well – to convince the rest of the unlicensed LPWA networking market that its best course is to join together, opportunistically, against a common adversary. There are two aspects to this ploy: to fix the broken image reflected back by the IoT market’s own fragmentation, and to resist the developing form projected forward by the cellular market, slow-footed but well-heeled, with its licensed NB-IoT/LTE-M twin-tech.
On paper, the correct model is not difficult, says Chiu; just look at how smartphones are purchased. He explains: “You have Apple, Samsung, and all the rest – it is super clean. ‘What do you want?’ Yes, there are different prices, and different stuff, and you might hesitate, but it is really simple. And sure; it is a mature market. But we are so far away from that. You go to the LPWAN shop, and you have to negotiate with this entire ecosystem, with thousands of players – depending on where you are and what you want, and what goes together. It is a mess for the customer.”
This is important; it is not about creating an Apple for IoT, or making Unabiz into Samsung – as yet. The point is just that customers can get what they want, without pulling back the covers and remaking the bed. In terms of networking, a smartphone connects out-of-the-box to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, GNSS, plus any variety of cellular. From an app perspective, as a consequence, practically everything is available. The sale is easy; it does not require too much thought, really, beyond a quick usage/costage calculation.
But low-power IoT is a minefield of co-creation and negotiation, to plot technical requirements against technical availability in preordained supply chains – which, to the market’s unremitting shame, ends in damaging trial-and-error, and limited scale and wasted money, and regret. “The point is to take that complexity, that mess – where the coverage depends and the compatibility depends – and make it simple for the customer. And it has to happen at every layer – at cloud level (already working), gateway level, device level, software level,” says Chiu.
Which means, at some point, IoT gateways and devices (and chips, too, says Chiu) with dual LoRaWAN/Sigfox radios – plus cellular, invariably, as Unabiz has been offering for some time, and Wi-Fi, BLE, and GNSS, as the market has generally levered into hybrid IoT solutions. It means, already, satellite-based LPWAN, as the LoRaWAN gang is doing, and the rest are testing. It means, potentially, TS-UNB/MIOTY and Wi-SUN as well, as use cases dictate. This is what Unabiz wants; it is what plenty of others across the way, at least in the rank-and-file, want as well, says Chiu.
He sounds confident. Will Unabiz be at the next LoRaWAN expo as an alliance member? “It is not a question of if; it is just a question of when,” he responds. “It seems obvious to us. And not just to be a member, but to push the exercise further. The LoRa Alliance has done a great job to align the ecosystem, diversify business models, and give customers options. Why would we continue to split our efforts to simplify the wider proposition? It can’t be just about one ecosystem; it has to be about joining these technologies and ecosystems in a way that is viable and billable.”
Unabiz is already in talks with gateway makers (“you can guess who,” says Chiu). The whole scheme sounds progressive, almost fantastical, as many will observe; it is also a gargantuan undertaking, especially for a five year-old startup, based in Singapore and short of sleep, which has a more immediately pressing engagement to reorientate a legacy French IoT business, once the darling of the European startup scene, that has completely lost its way. Even with the gateway project, it requires a different Sigfox – which is opened-up as a technology.
He responds: “It is a change in culture. We are an IoT company. We are no longer a Sigfox company. I am not here to sell a technology; just something that will bring value to your business, whatever it takes – whatever the radio. Some say, ‘No, buy this, buy mine’. Which is the way the market has gone. But we don’t want to limit ourselves in that way. We want all the options.” Which describes the change for Unabiz, actually; but Unabiz set up as a multi-mode IoT production house some time ago, before it swooped for Sigfox. So what changes with Sigfox?
Chiu responds: “We are running a cultural revolution; no pun intended. Sigfox is the future Unabiz has to avoid. And it is good because we have legacy ex-Sigfoxers coming back from the future, meeting us now, at the same point in time. These are bright people; very passionate, exactly the same as Unabiz. And they have seen the future – what happens when you burn money, what happens when you dream too big, what happens when you don’t deliver. And they are with us here now, with a team that wants to grow fast and which has been delivering.”
He goes on: “It is an interesting mix; plus, you have these completely different cultures, east and west, coming together. On one side we have the [Unabiz] solutions team in Taipei really looking forward to being involved in the tech – to participate in how Sigfox develops. And on the other side, the [Sigfox] tech team in Labège in the south of France is really excited at the idea they can extend their range; they want to do IoT, but IoT is a lot bigger than Sigfox, and they have been constrained until now to implement stuff only in Sigfox – and sometimes the wrong way.
“So they are looking forward to these solutions that are more global, and to work with LoRaWAN, and some other radio protocols – with TS-UNB and Wi-SUN – and with all the satellite integration with Astrocast and Kineis. Because it is all there in the box. And it aligns with our offer, anyway, which is super wide. The opportunity is to tighten it up with Sigfox, and enable Sigfox to evolve in a way that it is complementary, so it completes the IoT picture – so enterprises can do what they want under the banner of this famous LPWAN convergence.”