Sigfox have recently announced that it is opening up its LPWAN network protocol, claiming themselves as "the first global 0G network, confirming its leadership in small data collection". But what is 0G? And what does it mean for the market?
Who are Sigfox?
Founded 10 years ago by some French dudes, Sigfox defined a proprietary protocol able to send 12-byte messages with no guarantee that the messages would be delivered and - at least initially - no security. This might sound ridiculously puny compared with the growth in bandwidth that 3G and 4G have provided over the past decade , but it’s a classic case of “looks where others don't”. It turns out that many IoT use-cases require only tiny packets to notify events such as:
- “door opened”
- “vehicle charged”
- “temperature 25C”
- “paper towels low”
Even when you add a few bytes for a unique device identifier, this kind of data fits nicely into a Sigfox packet, and Sigfox has other characteristics which are very attractive in many IoT applications:
- Module cost of $2
- Data costs as low as $2/device/year in some markets
- Sub-minute latency
The genius of claiming "0G"Last week’s announcement caught my eye because of Sigfox's clever claiming of the “0G” brand. Whilst telcos hype up the move from 4G to 5G (much of which appears to be a solution looking for a problem), Sigfox are claiming the space right at the other end of the, er, spectrum - very low bandwidth for IoT.
Secondarily, as I outlined in my TED-x talk a few years ago, in any new market it’s always interesting to spot the point when incumbents are forced to open-up their proprietary protocols. When you're the only game in town the fact that you're proprietary is fairly irrelevant , but it can quickly become fatal once competitors arrive if you remain the only "closed" game in town.
Here comes the competition
It’s not easy being a pioneer: a couple of years ago, a string of executive resignations made it appear that Sigfox was struggling, and despite Sigfox and their partners investing more than $500m today they have only 6.2m devices live on the network (at $80/device acquisition cost, they'll probably never recoup that investment).
But... exponentials: Sigfox now has coverage across much of the developed world thanks to a clever strategy of appointing partners to launch networks in individual countries, they're exploring using satellites to give them whole-earth coverage, and recently announced an ambitious goal to reach a billion devices on the network by end of 2023.
Competition is now rapidly emerging in the arena of low-power, wide-area connectivity solutions for IoT. LoRAWAN seems to have got some traction thanks primarily to The Things Network and in the telco world CAT-M1 and NB-IoT are now fairly ubiquitous, though they still suffer from high module costs. These newer networks do provide security and sufficient bandwidth to support software updates, though it remains to be seen whether they can solve the coverage problem that SigFox has invested so hard to overcome.
Sigfox European coverage map from 2017 (their more-recent maps are not as beautiful!):