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How Sigfox plans to spread its low-power IoT network across the U.S.

Colin Neagle | Feb. 3, 2016
French low-power networking company has big plans for the U.S. in 2016.

Sigfox, a French networking company whose technology is already supporting large Internet of Things (IoT) deployments in several countries in Europe, has its sights set on the U.S. market.

The company hasn't been shy about its plans for U.S. expansion in 2016. By the end of the first quarter, Sigfox claims its networks will be up and running in 10 U.S. cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas.

So, how does the company plan to accomplish this? And how can it succeed in establishing a nationwide network for the IoT?

What is Sigfox?

Sigfox deploys Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) that work in concert with hardware that manufacturers can integrate into their products. In terms of compatibility, the network takes a similar approach to traditional GSM networks. Any device with integrated Sigfox hardware can connect to the internet – in regions where a Sigfox network has been deployed – without any external hardware, like a Wi-Fi or Zigbee router. But, in another sense, the Sigfox network is entirely different than traditional GSM networks, in that it can only transmit small amounts of data, at just 100 bits per second.

This is what Sigfox says makes it ideal for IoT devices. Relying on unlicensed spectrum, particularly the 900 MHz band in the U.S., the Sigfox network "whispers" data rather than "shouts" it, according to Sigfox president of North America Allen Proithis. This enables the devices using the network to conserve and extend battery life. Thomas Nicholls, executive vice president of communications for Sigfox, says its technology makes for sensors that can "go to sleep" when not transmitting data, consuming energy only when they need to. As one example, Sigfox claims a car theft warning system that uses its technology lasts five years on just two AA batteries, according to a CNET article from last March.

How do they build the network?

The focus on low-power, low-bandwidth communications also makes the Sigfox network relatively easy to deploy. Nicholls says the company completed its nationwide deployment in Spain in about 10 months, for example.

With a base station the size of a briefcase, Proithis claims the company can do multiple site installs in one day, sometimes on rooftops in major cities but also in less conventional places, like billboards. And because the network sends such low amounts of data, it can reach farther distances with fewer base stations. Nicholls added that Sigfox's network is designed as a collaborative network, which prevents base stations from recognizing each other after they've been deployed. This eliminates the need to reconfigure the network when deploying a new base station.


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