Bonjour! This week I am in Paris at the LoRaWAN World Expo, where the LoRa Alliance invited me to give a talk about open infrastructure.
One of my goals while I’m here this week was to find out what UnaBiz, the company that purchased Sigfox’s assets out of receivership earlier this year, plans to do with those assets. So I sat down with Philippe Chiu, the co-CEO and co-founder of UnaBiz, to find out.
At the time of the purchase, UnaBiz co-founder Henri Bong said the company planned to use the Sigfox assets to strive toward some kind of “LPWAN convergence.”
As it turns out, Bong wasn’t talking about a radio convergence between LoRa and Sigfox’s proprietary protocol. In fact, the company is trying to create an abstraction layer on top of different LPWANs to give clients the connectivity they need for specific projects based on the available coverage, the cheapest price and, eventually, other variables that might matter for businesses.
Already UnaBiz has customers that have built out sensor networks using a combination of LoRaWAN and Cat-M networks. Because UnaBiz makes its devices, is able to provide connectivity, and can wrap all of these things up into an application or other “solution” for a customer, it can easily rely upon multiple different types of networking technologies to build out the needed use case.
In the case of Nicigas, a Japanese customer, about 90% of the more than 800,000 sensors it’s deployed are on a Sigfox network, while the remaining 10% use a Cat-M network because there’s no Sigfox coverage in those locations. Chiu says the customer is paying 9X more for devices and connectivity for the cellular option, but at least by using both networks the cost for the overall deployment remains manageable.
Like me, Chiu is attuned to the costs of connectivity and what those costs mean when it comes to our ability to connect millions of devices to the internet. The founding goal for UnaBiz was to get to what he calls massive IoT by reducing the costs associated with both the devices and the connectivity. He plans to focus on the cloud side as well.
If a customer chooses cellular connectivity today, as opposed to LoRaWAN or Sigfox, they are looking at higher costs for the modem inside the sensor or device as well as higher ongoing connectivity costs. And in addition to the connectivity and hardware costs, any connected device maker or owner has to pay for the data sent and likely stored in the cloud.
Chiu thinks UnaBiz has the ability to build cheaper and more efficient cloud platforms for connected devices. As he noted to me, it has already built cheaper devices and sensors using Sigfox, LoRaWAN, and other networking technologies, and is striking deals to lower connectivity costs as much as it can. He believes that customers don’t care which LPWAN they use, that they just want to get something online at a cost that makes sense.
I agree. The people trying to monitor their crops or build parking tracking networks aren’t religious about which technology they use. If a vendor can package up good tech and make different networks look and behave the same when provisioning and managing devices on the networks, then customers shouldn’t care.
With the Sigfox assets, UnaBiz can now sell Sigfox alongside other LPWAN technologies, and can even help other Sigfox network operators add more networks to their portfolios. Under the original Sigfox business, any network provider that wanted to sell Sigfox connectivity could only do so exclusively.
I went into this event thinking LoRaWAN would supplant Sigfox technology, but after listening to how much love device makers and even users at the show had for Sigfox, it’s clear that there’s demand for Sigfox — and that a heterogeneous network strategy might work. I heard from half a dozen people how much easier it is to build for Sigfox and get devices up and running compared with LoRaWAN (and this was at a LoRa Alliance event).
And since technology has always been about hiding complexity under a layer of abstraction, I figure that maybe it’s time that sort of trick came to the networking world.