IoT startup Sigfox launching 902 MHz network nationwide in U.S.

BARCELONA, Spain--French startup Sigfox is rolling out its slow-speed Internet of Things wireless network in San Francisco today, and hopes to cover 90 percent of the U.S. population with the network within the next three years.

In an interview here on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress trade show, Sigfox marketing chief Thomas Nicholls said that Sigfox and an unnamed partner have already installed some of Sigfox's rooftop base stations in San Francisco, and that they plan to make a major announcement about their work sometime "soon." Nicholls also described Sigfox's partner in San Francisco as "very interesting" and one that would help Sigfox build out its network in the city as well as sell its services to potential IoT customers.

Nicholls said that Sigfox has already conducted several pilot projects of its network technology in various locations across the United States. He said the company is gearing up for a major commercial push in the United States this year. The company's recent $115 million round of venture capital financing was geared primarily to fund its U.S. expansion, including hiring 30 new U.S. employees.

Sigfox is one of the more interesting companies in the burgeoning IoT space. Nicholls described the company's service as "optimized for low-bandwidth" applications. Indeed, the company's network technology runs in the unlicensed 902 MHz band in the United States (or the 868 MHz band in Europe) and therefore doesn't require Sigfox to purchase spectrum licenses. And the company's base stations (which require a fiber or DSL connection, a power supply and a rooftop) and its devices (which cost generally just a few dollars and can run on a few AA batteries for years) can communicate over dozens of miles. The result is a simple, low-power network that can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of a traditional cellular network--Nicholls said Sigfox's deployment partner in Spain spent $5 million to deploy the company's network across the country in seven months.

Of course, the result is a system that can only transmit a tiny amount of data a few times a day. Specifically, due to power-emission regulations in the unlicensed band, Sigfox customers can only receive 140 messages per day from their devices, and those messages can only contain around 100 characters. Customers can send only four messages per day to their devices. The messages are relatively prompt though, arriving in a few seconds. Thus, Nicholls said the network cannot support real-time communications like credit card authorizations, but it can send alerts like whether a parking space is empty or occupied.

Sigfox has signed on plenty of IoT customers to its network in Europe, which stretches across several countries there. Sigfox customers range from utilities to healthcare providers to home security companies. Applications span the gamut, from remote meter reading for utility companies to emergency alerts for healthcare workers. And the price appears to be right: Nicholls said Sigfox's service plans start at roughly $8 a year, a price that slides down as customers purchase more connections. The company currently counts around 300,000 devices currently connected to its networks in Europe, and its customers have pledged to increase that number to 8 million over the next two years.

Sigfox doesn't directly build its network. The company typically contracts with local companies to handle the relatively simple deployment of its rooftop antennas, and then those local partners often resell Sigfox's services.

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