It may seem odd for Link Labs to write about the biggest competitor in our space, but I have been getting questions from analysts and customers about their $110M fund raise that was announced yesterday. So here’s a quick roundup of the news and what it means for our industry, as well an explanation of the SigFox network and company itself.
See also: Sigfox Resource Page
At the end of the day, this is great news for our market because it validates and legitimizes the opportunity we saw when we founded Link Labs. What space is that, you ask? The low power, wide area (LPWA) network space, which is a subset of the Machine-to-Machine (M2M) market and is often referred to now as the Internet of Things (IoT).
Specifically, SigFox sets up antennas on towers (like a cell phone company), and receives data transmissions from devices like parking sensors or water meters. These transmissions use frequencies that are unlicensed, which in the US is the 915 MHz ISM band; the same frequency a cordless phone uses. (Europe has a narrower band around 868 MHz, and most of the world has some version of this band either like the US or Europe, all with different rules that govern their use.)
SigFox wireless systems send very small amounts of data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 baud) using standard radio transmission methods (phase-shift keying - DBPSK - going up and frequency-shift keying - GFSK - coming down). The long range is accomplished as a result of very long and very slow messages. Information theory says that the slower you transmit, the easier it is to “hear” your message.
This technology is a good fit for any application that needs to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Things like basic alarm systems, location monitoring, and simple metering are all examples of one-way systems that might make sense for this network. In these networks, the signal is typically sent a few times to “ensure” the message goes through. While this works, there are some limitations, such as shorter battery life for battery-powered applications, and an inability to guarantee a message is actually received by the tower.
Another way to design a network is bi-directionally (like your cell phone). SigFox has not deployed any bi-directional networks, though they have said to be working on the technology. If they are successful in deploying a two-way network, this will enable a wider variety of applications on their networks, though it will not have a symmetrical link because of the underlying technology they have chosen.
SigFox has faced challenges in moving their technology into the US market. Under FCC Part 15, the law that governs the use of the unlicensed radio spectrum, the maximum time a transmission can be on the air is 0.4 seconds. Since SigFox transmissions are 3 seconds or so, this has required a new architecture, and is the likely reason they have been slower to deploy in the US than promised. The frequency band in the US is also subject to much higher levels of interference than the band SigFox uses in Europe.
The pet tracking company, Whistle, announced a partnership to sell a solution on the SigFox wireless network in May 2014, but has been unable to ship product because the SigFox network has not materialized in the US. This is perhaps the reason Whistle acquired the cellular based tracking company Snaptracks (maker of Tagg) a few weeks ago.
SigFox competitors are each finding at their own niche within the LPWA space. Link Labs’ low power, wide area systems are very different technically, and allow for uses in applications like demand response (electric grid control), asset monitoring, and commercial security. If you’re interested in how we are different, please see our page on Symphony Link.
With all that said, there is a large market opportunity in this space, and Link Labs looks forward to friendly competition with SigFox for many years to come. We’ll figure out who gets to play Coke and who can be Pepsi next time we’re together.