Sigfox and the accelerating race for global LPWAN IoT network coverage

Many Internet of Things applications require wireless long-range and low-power connectivity solutions whereby relatively small amounts of data are sent, often intermittently.

This is where LPWAN comes in (low-power wide area networks). The majority of LPWAN technologies use unlicensend band and they are a good fit for many applications in areas such as smart metering, smart cities, e-health, parking garage sensors, asset tracking, waste management, smart farming, traffic solutions and more Internet of Things use cases.

While LPWA network technologies are facing competition from other connectivity approaches, they are part of the offerings of many providers of IoT connectivity, including telecommunication firms.

There is also fierce competition in the LPWAN space itself where major players, among others, include the LoRa Alliance, Sigfox and Ingenu. We covered LoRa and LoRaWAN in a first article in this series. In this article we take a look at the Sigfox IoT network approach, which is accelerating its growth, specifically in some regions, including the US.

The Sigfox IoT connectivity strategy

Sigfox: what it is and how it works

Sigfox is a French company that has been active in the Internet of Things connectivity and communications space since quite some time.

A company with a technology and IoT network operator positioning

Sigfox offers low-powered wide area network coverage with its solution, which is also called Sigfox. The company positions itself as an IoT network operator.

Just as is the case with the LoRa Alliance, the Sigfox LPWAN approach means connectivity for a lot of Internet of Things applications and use cases whereby long distance, low energy consumption, long battery lives and low bandwidth data transmissions are typical characteristics, as mentioned.

Still, there are technology differences and, at least as important, the market approach of Sigfox is different than that of Semtech, founder of the LoRa Alliance, and its partners, which include telecom firms and companies using LoRaWAN for specific purposes. LoRaWAN is typically also more involved in both public and private IoT networks while Sigfox itself goes for public networks.

Ultra-narrowband technology to build a global IoT network with local ‘operators’

Sigfox uses a cellular-like system with an ultra-narrowband technology. The company works with a range of partners, Sigfox network operators (SNOs), as it wants to build a global IoT network, outside the licensed spectrum.

Sigfox doesn’t only want a global IoT network, it also wants it fast as it repeatedly says. Rolling out as fast and as broadly as possible is key for the company.

In order to do so and given its technology, Sigfox needs partners who own high places where they can put Sigfox antennas. This shapes its partner and investor ecosystem because in essence it needs what, for instance, telecom firms and some large industrial firms have: towers (water towers, telecom towers) and other infrastructure such as the high places you, for instance, find in oil and gas, to name a few.

Sigfox in numbers and plans

According to the latest numbers we have (end June 2016), Sigfox has a nationwide live coverage in 6 countries and in 14 other countries it is deploying and rolling out ts network.

By the end of 2016 it would be present in approximately 30 countries, thanks to a few new deals and with rapid and ambitious deployment plans in the US as you’ll read below. By end 2018, the ambition is to cover 60 markets. Sigfox claims it has around 7-8 million registered devices on its network.

A different and proprietary approach

Sigfox has an approach that differs a lot from that of the LoRa Alliance, as mentioned. It typically works with one partner per country (although that could be changing due to partnerships with companies who are also actively pushing Sigfox outside of their ‘native’ countries) to deploy its IoT LPWA networks.

It also has a proprietary approach, unlike the more open approach of the LoRa Alliance. This means that you’re essentally talking about one company with its technology and its vast partner ecosystem. Nevertheless, this more proprietary view hasn’t worked too much against Sigfox (and in a sense LoRa Alliance founder Semtech also has some degree of control), as it continues to expand.

Another difference that is typical for Sigfox is its reliance on investors that don’t just invest in the company but often are also major partners in roll-out and operations/implementations. Preparing a probable IPO in a few years, Sigfox doesn’t seek investments in the classic VC scene too much but rather works with big industrial, technology and telecommunication companies as we’ll tackle below.

Sigfox company and technology

Sigfox across the globe: where is Sigfox present and with whom?

We could have made our lives easier and just point you to this page on the Sigfox website where the global coverage of Sigfox and (some of) its local partners are mentioned (and now you have that link) but we also went a bit deeper for some countries and regions. Where is Sigfox available and who “offers” it?

Sigfox in Europe

Southern Europe: France, Spain, Portugal and Italy

Sigfox, as a French company with quite some French investors (more below), has a strong footprint in its ‘native’ country.

Still, it was less obvious than one might think. The fact that both Orange and Bouygues Telecom went for nationwide LoRa coverage in France is a factor in this regard. However, with its existing initiatives and partners and thanks to a collaboration with France’s second largest operator, SFR and SFR’s mother company Altice Group (which also has international consequences as we’ll see below), Sigfox now covers approximately 90 percent of the population of France, neighboring Spain (92 percent in France and 94 percent in Spain) and Portugal (where Altice is also present with Portugal Telecom).

In Spain, Sigfox works with Cellnex Telecom, an independent infrastructure operator for wireless communications, which is also present in Italy and recently announced the acquisition of Shere Group, giving it access to the UK and The Netherlands. Companies like Cellnex Telecom are obviously ideal for Sigfox as they dispose of sites where Sigfox antennas can be put.

In Italy Sigfox works with Nettrotter, which announced (PDF opens) that its Sigfox network offered dedicated IoT coverage to 60 percent of Italians in April 2016.

Sigfox in the UK and Ireland

In the UK, SIGFOX works with Arqiva, also a communications infrastructure company and, among others, an independent provider of telecom towers to mobile network operators, radio groups, broadcasters, utility firms and so on. And, here as well, telecom towers are indeed where Sigfox needs to place those antennas for LPWA network coverage. End 2014, the Arqiva IoT wireless network went live in 10 cities.

As of March 2016, approximately 30 percent of the UK population could access the Arqiva SIGFOX network across 11 cities and 54 towns as the company stated in a press release announcing its first UK reseller.

In Ireland roll-out seems to go faster than in the UK. Sigfox operator VT Networks raised €1.2 million early 2016 and should be offering full nationwide coverage by the end of the year.

Competing with Engie and Telenet in Belgium

In Belgium nationwide Sigfox coverage is done with ENGIE M2M. That’s the Brussels-based Internet of Things subsidiary of French Engie Group, a global player in the energy industry.

The roll-out in Belgium was announced in June 2015 and the network was expected to be available within two years.

ENGIE M2M collaborates with Telenet, a telecom firm, which made its existing infrastructure of towers and other high places where the Sigfox antennas can be placed available. Telenet is also offering the network to its large customer base as an addition to ‘classic networks’. Telenet competitor Proximus has nationwide low power wide area (LPWA) network coverage with Sigfox competitor LoRa/LoRaWAN. According to Telenet nationwide Sigfox network coverage should be ready by end 2016.

Other European presences

Other countries in Europe where Sigfox is present include Finland (with ConnectedFinland as the partner), Luxemburg (with RMS and with full coverage), Malta (with IOT Malta), Denmark (with IOT Denmark), the Czech republic (with SimpleCell) and Germany, where the company opened an office and the goal is full coverage by end 2017 (no network operators have been mentioned though).

Finally (and this list is not exhaustive) we also need to mention The Netherlands. As written in our piece on LoRa, The Netherlands was the first country to have nationwide IoT LWAN coverage with LoRaWAN.

However, with Aerea, a former Intel brand and former provider of Wimax services, apparently Sigfox covers a major part of the country too.

Sigfox in the US:  100 cities by end 2016

From Europe we jump to the US where Sigfox has been actively seeking a presence and expansion since 2014 when it started with an IoT network for a part of San Francisco, including Silicon Valley.

In May 2016 the company said it was speeding up deployments in the US fast and aims to move from an earlier announced coverage of 10 US cities to a whopping 100 cities by the end of 2016. Sigfox doesn’t mention one partner for the US (yet?) on its site but reportedly has struck deals with various owners of spots where it can put up its antennas.

The company claimed in May that this way it had already access to over 230,000 sites, making the goal of 100 cities more achievable.

Moreover, Sigfox also has a partnership with Altice, as mentioned previously. Altice Group is, among others, a cable, fiber, telecommunications and media company with presences in several regions, including Western Europe and the US, operating under different brands. In a press release (PDF opens), announcing a strategic IoT partnership between Sigfox, Altice and Altice’s French global telecom operator, SFR, the companies stated that this partnership between Sigfox and Altice would also be extended to other countries and regions, including the US.

Asia-Pacific: the next stage

As mentioned in our article on LoRa, Asia-Pacific is a key growth market and many IoT service providers and network facilitators are building out their activities very rapidly in the region with several partnerships.

However, Sigfox has some catching up to do here (mainly in Asia) and it also plans to. In July 2016, Sigfox, Engie (its partner in Belgium and an investor) and IoT network operator UnaBiz announced the launch of Singapore’s first nationwide IoT network. The regional headquarters of Sigfox are based in Singapore. With Unabiz, Sigfox is also present in Taiwan. For 2017 the company is looking at among others India and China.

A key partner in the APAC region, however, is Thinxtra which is creating a Sigfox IoT network in Australia and New Zealand. Thinxtra, a start-up with, among others the CEO of Engie Australia in its board of directors, raised AUD 11 million in 5 months, and covered 33 percent of the population in Australia and 54 percent of the population in New Zealand according to a press release from September 2016.

The company’s goal is to provide coverage to 85 percent of Australians and New Zealanders by the end of June 2017. Moreover, Thinxtra is aiming at more countries in the APAC region, enabling Sigfox to enter these markets faster. With Thinxtra, Sigfox has a clear edge on the LoRa Alliance in Australia and is in a race for New Zealand.

Sigfox in other regions and in other partnerships

Given it’s French roots, Sigfox is very active in French overseas territory. In South America it also operates in Brazil, Mexico and Colambia. Finally, recently Sigfox also started in the GCC region with operations in Oman, together with Omantel.

On top of the various collaborations with its ‘Sigfox Network Operator’ (SNO) partners, whereby, again, Sigfox wants to move increasingly faster, there are also several other partnerships with vendors. An example: end March 2016, Microsoft and Sigfox announced a collaboration to connect Sigfox IoT devices to Microsoft Azure IoT hub.

And obviously there is also an ecosystem of technology enablers, solution enablers such as system integrators and device manufacturers (you can explore the partner ecosystem here).

The Sigfox ecosystem of technology enablers network operators and solution enablers in June 2015 - source Sigfox SlideShare presentation
The Sigfox ecosystem of technology enablers network operators and solution enablers in June 2015 – source Sigfox SlideShare presentation

The thin line between Sigfox investors and partners: on the road to an IPO

Given its more proprietary approach, another difference with the LoRa Alliance approach is that Sigfox heavily relies on funding, yet not with a typical VC approach as mentioned.

When it boils down to funding you clearly see that there are close ties between several investors in Sigfox and various partners. Moreover, several investors also are partners.

Investments and plans

In October news broke that Sigfox was seeking to raise between $100 million and $200 million (at a valuation of approximately $600 million).

Mid november Sigfox announced it had raised 150 million euros (approx $160 million), with amongst others Total and, noteworthy, Salesforce entering in its capital. It’s a well-known fast that the company ultimately eyes and IPO as repeatedly said by its execs.

According to CrunchBase, Sigfox already raised $149.56M in 3 rounds with investors such as Engie (the new name of GDF Suez), other industrial groups such as Air Liquide, tech investors including Intel Capital, satellite provider Eutelsat and telecom operators with SK Telecom Ventures, the investment arm of South Korean wireless telecom group SK Telecom, Japan’s leading mobile phone operator NTT DOCOMO and Spain-based internationally active telecommunications provider Telefónica. Also Samsung Ventures invested in Sigfox and integrates its IoT network protocol in a Samsung platform.

Telecom operators in flux

The presence of telecommunications firms as investors is interesting, certainly as one invested in a competing network, but also because many operators are looking at NB-IoT or LTE-M (both are 3GPP standards). However, this obviously also goes for telecom firms in, for instance, the LoRa Alliance.

One example is SK Telecom which, despite being a Sigfox investor, announced its nationwide LoRaWAN coverage in July 2016 and stated that LoRa and LTE-M are its two main IoT pillars as Iain Morris reports. Moreover, the company also continues its research and development regarding NB-IoT as Morris reports.

Where can Sigfox be used and how is it used?

The list of IoT applications which can be leveraged is relatively similar to that of the LoRa Alliance and LPWAN in general, even if there are a few “technological” differences.

It is important to understand that Sigfox positions itself as a network operator which charges fees. It’s not a hardware vendor and not a solutions provider. So, for examples of how it is used you need to look at its full partner ecosystem which can be consulted via its site via the previously mentioned link. Some of the investors in Sigfox have also built solutions or are helping other solution providers to do so. The same goes for its network partners across various countries.

This is for instance the case with ENGIE, which as an energy firm obviously wants to transform its energy solutions and services as you can see in the video below (multiple languages, including English, all undertitled).

 

Is Sigfox better than its competitors?

As said in our article on LoRa(WAN) there is no one-size-fits-all solution. SigFox is more present in specific markets than in others and, just as is the case with LoRa, there are people who point out weaknesses in Sigfox, which then are sometimes refuted by Sigfox.

The competition in the LPWAN market is high and as we have been going through so many cases to prepare the next articles in this series with comparisons, interviews and practical applications it’s become increasingly clear that there is a lot of dicussion going on between various providers and their partners. As we prefer to look at applications we’ll leave those to niche publications, LPWAN industry insiders and the world of rumors – at least for now.

There are debates about some technological aspects and there are discussions about the business model, just as is the case with others. It’s clear that Sigfox is ambitous and growing fast. Our goal is not to go there, again for now, but to focus on real-time Internet of Things applications instead of the hype surrounding IoT.

In the meantime here is an overview of Sigfox (with an overview of other IoT technologies and even an intro to IoT) and its technology aspects from Belgian Nick De Cooman, made end 2015 (before the rebranding of Sigfox). It contains 15 minutes of very useful information!

Stay tuned for more practical applications, real-life examples (also in other LPWAN approaches), interviews and comparisons between the various LPWAN players.

LPWAN forecasts 2017

 

Disclaimer: we have no affiliation with any of the mentioned companies in this article.

 

Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: chombosan – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.

J-P De Clerck
J-P is the founder of i-SCOOP. Born and based in Belgium, he likes to share information, thoughts, inspiration and anything regarding the convergence of marketing, management, customer-centricity, publishing, digital technologies, psychology, transformation, optimization, media and IT - in the hope it serves you. The mentioned areas are those he has been active in since 1992 as a marketer, a consultant, a publisher and a trainer. Connect on Twitter via @conversionation or on LinkedIn.