SAN JOSE, Calif. — A startup based near Toulouse, France, hopes to raise more than $70 million to build a national network in the US for the Internet of Things. Sigfox hopes to close funding early next year in what it sees as a race to be the first with a broadly deployed wide-area IoT network.
The company says it has a lead with national IoT nets using ISM-band transceivers that have already been deployed in France and Spain and are in the works in the UK. It also has an unnamed partner with whom it hopes to put base stations on satellites for a future IoT network with global coverage.
The ambitious effort is part of the latest race to create low-power, wide-area networks. At least half a dozen companies (including Huawei, China's top communications company) are engaged in separate efforts taking different approaches, many at an early stage.
The efforts face competition from entrenched cellular operators, whose prices they hope to undercut with offerings that have longer battery life and range but much lower data rates. An emerging standard for WiFi on the ISM band is likely to spawn other competitors among the big WiFi vendors, including Qualcomm.
“We think the potential is substantial,” said Andy Castonguay, a principal analyst with the UK market watcher Machina Research, who tracks the area. “If properly implemented, it can be very applicable for industrial, agricultural, transport, and other sectors for a number of use cases, but the challenge is coverage.” Who will get there first “is still up in the air.”
Christophe Fourtet, a celluar specialist who spent a decade at Freescale and Motorola, co-founded Sigfox with the entrepreneur Ludovic Le Moan. The company's name is meant to suggest smart signaling, pointing to Fourtet's realization that ISM-band links made more sense than GSM for many IopT applications.
Four unnamed companies now make base stations using the company's software running on off-the-shelf 800-900MHz transceivers. They now cover 420,000 square miles in Europe with ranges that run from a couple of kilometers for underground water meters to 500 km for connected billboards run by Clear Channel.
The base stations can run for 5-20 years on batteries. But they are limited, by both technology and regulations, to data rates of 100-600 bits/second, sending a maximum of 140 12-byte messages a day and receiving no more than four eight-byte messages a day.
“Each customer has its own vocabulary where it can express a lot in a few bytes,” said a Sigfox representative. No customer is near the limits for its IoT apps.
Each base station costs about $4,000. In simulations, they have been able to support as many as a million end nodes sending 10 messages a day.
Sigfox charges operators a subscription rate of $1-16 a year per node based on volume. That's a fraction of the $1-2/day a cellular link would cost, said Castonguay of Machina Research.
Competitors say the company's software is proprietary. Sigfox has gathered support from a handful of companies, including the carrier Orange, to draft an ad hoc specification released through the ETSI standards group. A formal standard will take years, but the company is working on it, and it recently hired a full- time standards specialist.
Sigfox's current funding round is for more than double the $35 million it has taken in its six years to date. Its focus is on gathering the partners and funding to deploy a national US network. In tandem, it struck a partnership with an unnamed company to help deploy a global network via satellite.
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