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License-Free Spectrum Goes Cellular

Regular cellular networks were designed to handle voice and high-volume data traffic and, in the case of GSM, provide global connectivity. This level of engineering is overkill for carrying M2M (machine-to-machine) traffic. What's needed is a new kind of network for M2M: one designed from the bottom up using a technology that is fit for purpose.

Such networks are being created, using different license-free technologies. They enable a no hassle, cost-effective way for new entrants to design and deploy solutions that have groundbreaking functionality. It's a combination that promises better economics for M2M.

It's important to emphasize that such overlay networks don't do voice or text messaging: The technology is not competitive to GSM/CDMA. Wide area unlicensed cellular networks are radically different, but the underlying technology is robust. Basically they provide a low-cost, very efficient data transmission service that is dedicated to the low throughput requirements of M2M (machine to machine) and IoT (Internet of Things) applications.

This article looks at the network functionality and business model of SIGFOX. Their offer is based on UNB (Ultra Narrow-Band) technology, which employs the license-free ISM bands. UNB devices have outstanding sensitivity, which minimizes the number of base stations needed for wide area coverage, which in turn means that a key feature of building a network with this technology is the low cost.

The nationwide network in France, which was built by SIGFOX, employs around 1,000 base stations at a cost of $4 million. That is about 100 times cheaper than an equivalent GSM/CDMA cellular network. Another important feature is the fact that the devices do not need to be certified by a carrier, a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars in the U.S. and take several months.

Networks outside France are deployed by an ecosystem of partners, each of which has exclusivity in their country. They roll out the network and become de facto network operators who market subscriptions. There are no roaming issues: The combination functions as a single logical network.

The Business Model
There are different deployment scenarios for ISM networks, one of which is to buy certified devices from an authorized systems integrator (SI). The average price to ISM-enable a device is less than $5 per device, compared with $15-$40 for a regular cellular product. The SI can and normally would embed a SIGFOX communications module from third-party vendors such as Telit.

One nice feature comes from the fact that subscriber IDs are embedded: no SIM cards, no need for subscriber lifecycle management, and management of the devices is much simpler. The whole process can be completed in a few days, versus several weeks or even months for GSM/CDMA. This means that cost-effective solutions can be marketed in very short time frames, and that is the name of the game these days. Solutions will work without any modification in different markets, provided a SIGFOX network has been deployed.

This model also allows apps to be created in much shorter timeframes. Regular M2M runs in a client-server architecture. The client (device) performs a task such as monitor and measure a parameter every 5 mins, store the results and then transmit a batch of data every hour to the server. If a measurement is outside a predetermined range, then it sends an exception message.

Because of this architecture, part of the application runs on the device, which complicates the device's creation. But it's necessary to use a client-server architecture to avoid sending lots of messages having a high overhead, which is inefficient and costly.

If you can afford to ignore the overhead issue, then it's possible to simplify and speed up the process. Programmers only need to tell the communications model to send those messages at a pre-determined interval, and the server does the rest. No knowledge of the underlying technology is needed: M2M becomes a regular data communications app. Data is received through the standards-based SIGFOX Web APIs on the server, and in turn this facilitates integration with other apps such as CRM and ERP.

Subscriptions can be activated remotely and on-demand. They are sold at annual rates for a few dollars, down to around $1 for high-volume deployments. It's the icing on the cake and a proof point that the technology can provide a low-cost, very efficient data transmission service. Another is the fact that to date more than 5 million devices have been deployed.

Clear Channel Outdoor uses SIGFOX in their 1,000+ billboards installed throughout France. The use of SIGFOX allows Clear Channel to optimize their maintenance routines by alerting the maintenance staff in real-time when a billboard is malfunctioning.

In Moscow, an intelligent parking solution is in its second year of operation. According to The Moscow Times, the Russian capital is the most congested city in the world, followed by Istanbul, Warsaw and Marseilles. And a French insurance company is using the low-throughput, nationwide network for a home security offer.

Other use cases that are running on a SIGFOX network include water metering, connected medicine dispensers, animal tracking, and asset management. More will follow, in line with rollouts in several other European countries, followed by the U.S., where the company has an office in Mountain View, CA.

Robust End-to-End Solutions
SIGFOX's networks enable the relatively easy deployment of end-to-end solutions, and the use of Web communication protocols facilitates integration with the applications. The design is hierarchical: UNB modems communicate with base stations, or cells; messages are routed to servers, which check data integrity and then route the messages to the customer's information system. Messages can be bidirectional, i.e. data can be pushed to the devices.

Solutions are intrinsically robust because the technology has been pared down so as to provide a fit-for-purpose design. There's not much that can go wrong, and it's worth noting that RF interference is not an issue--unlike in GSM/CDMA networks. In the US, more than 60% of M2M devices fail certification because of antenna and/or RF related issues. On SIGFOX devices, the electromagnetic radiation signal is minute: about 10,000 times lower.

The fact that the network was designed from the bottom up means that there are some neat features, such as ensuring application connectivity to large numbers of equipment and objects over long time periods. In addition, each base station has a minimum of two IP links. The base stations host and process the data streams, and several antennas simultaneously receive the information that is transmitted by each object. This guarantees continuity of service, and scaling the network is not an issue. Each base station can accommodate more than 1 million devices, and it is easy to add base stations. In the GSM architecture, adding more base stations is not a trivial task.

Partners and Applications
The fact that innovative, established M2M/IoT vendors are partnering with SIGFOX indicates that this is a serious, significant development. Recent announcements include collaboration agreements with Telit, a leading vendor of wireless modules, as well as ThingWorx, a company that PTC acquired in December 2013 for $112 million.

The ThingWorx platform provides a complete application design, runtime, and intelligence environment. Key features include a "drag and drop" mashup builder that enables developers and business users to rapidly create interactive applications, real-time dashboards, collaborative workspaces, and mobile interfaces without the need for coding. In addition there is SQUEAL (Search, Query, and Analysis), which brings search to the world of connected devices and distributed data.

There is a lot to like about SIGFOX's technology. It's a genuine breakthrough development that facilitates the entry of new players, both large and small, into a dynamic industry that is experiencing double-digit growth. The company states that the total cost of ownership for solutions that employ their technology is typically about one tenth of an equivalent GSM/CDMA solution.

All a new entrant needs to do, apart from writing the app, is buy compatible devices. They don't need SIM cards or multi-band air interfaces. SIGFOX issues IDs to the modem manufacturers, who subsequently give them to their customers, and then they use the local service provider to activate them. This allows each customer to manage their devices and subscribe to the messages they send.

Finally, in addition to being assured that the networks are robust, new entrants will also want to have confidence in the company's ability to survive in a very competitive market. SIGFOX recently raised 15 million Euros in the last VC round, and these will be used to accelerate growth and international deployment.