A wireless network for gadgets set to arrive in San Francisco

French-based firm deploying first U.S. Internet of Things-specific network from San Francisco to San Jose

The San Francisco Bay Area and south to San Jose will soon have what may be the nation's first dedicated Internet of Things network. It may change the way you think about the future of the IoT.

The company installing the systems and antennas for this long range wireless network, Sigfox, is a France-based firm that has already deployed such technology in France. Sigfox is also building such networks in Spain, the U.K., and in many major international cities, including Moscow.

IoT devices send out short messages that offers an advantage to the Sigfox technology. Its network has a low data rate of 100 bits per second, which gives it very long range over the unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM), radio bands in the sub-GHz range.

Therefore, base stations antennas, depending on whether they are being deployed in an urban core or in rural area, can be spread apart at distances ranging from several miles to tens of miles, if not more. This includes coverage inside buildings.

With ample distance between base stations possible, Sigfox can deploy what it calls its Ultra Narrow-Band technology very rapidly across a wide area. It hopes to have the the San Jose to San Francisco corridor completed by the end of September. It intends to quickly bring the technology to the top 10 U.S. markets in the next 12 to 18 months. The list of cities may include New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

What problem does the Sigfox technology fix?

Today, there are lot of ways for people to connect devices to the Internet, but they are either too expensive, namely 4G and 3G cellular or satellite, or too short-ranged, such as WiFi and Blue Tooth Low Energy.

Sigfox's long-range network offers a middle approach.

Sigfox also attacks the cost of connecting devices. It claims that bandwidth charges will be no more than $1 a year to $1 a month.

That's the price that the gadget maker with pay -- and it's low enough where the buyer may absorb it in the sales price of the product. If so, it could free the end user or consumer from having to purchase a subscription plan.

"Sigfox is still a well-kept secret," said Stefan Ried, an analyst at Forrester. "Most IoT scenarios are trying to leverage 3G or 4G connectivity, and obviously this is too expensive for the low-bandwidth scenarios."

How will the Sigfox technology change the IoT?

The news of Sigfox's plans was coupled with an announcement from Whistle, a company that has created an activity monitor for pets. It is adding GPS capability that use Sigfox's technology. The GPS-enabled device will ship next summer.

Whistle says that by using Sigfox, instead of 4G or 3G, it can keep its WhistleGPS unit, which includes all the activity monitoring functions, to about a half an ounce in weight and about the size of a silver dollar, and it will maintain a charge for a week, which it claims is twice that of other pet trackers. Users connect with a mobile app, and will pay $5 a month for the GPS tracking capability. The units will cost $129, although the company is selling them is selling them through May 27, pre-order, at $49.

Whistle CEO and co-founder Ben Jacobs said the company didn't build a 3G device because it would have been three to four times larger, and the monthly service would cost twice as much for consumers.

The relationship with Sigfox isn't exclusive and Jacobs expects other providers to emerge with sub-GHz networks. Jacobs says Whistle will able to provide support for other networks in different areas, should the need arise, but "our belief is that Sigfox is an early leader," he said.

Long-range, low bandwidth and low energy technology has a number of advantages.

Home sensors, for instance, have wireless radios but are short-range and connect with hub and router and a power source. If the power goes out, the sensing capability may be lost. But Sigfox claims batteries can last for years in these devices and continue to connect to a network, making data available.

Sigfox's technology also means that wearable tech can be connected without a smartphone or proximity to a WiFi network.

For instance, a GPS-enabled watch may keep track of your running, but the data isn't mapped until a user connects it to a mobile device or PC. But a GPS watch with a Sigfox radio included will be able to send location data via a network so someone can track your run from home.

"The IoT definitely needs these types of networks because they provide a balance of features that isn't matched by current wide area networks like cellular," said Nick Jones, a Gartner analyst.

Jones see Sigfox technology as a competitor to some other long-range wireless technologies, such as U.K.-based Nuel's Weightless technology, and the Japanese-developed Wide Area Ubiquitous Network (WAUN).

"These sorts of networks are filling a technology gap and will be an essential element of the future IoT," said Jones. The downside, though, is the risk of vendor lock-in, he added..

The bottom line is that this type of technology will be a part of the future IoT, but it's not certain which technology will be the long-term winner, said Jones. "We need standards and a broad ecosystem of vendors to emerge to make it more attractive," he said.

Luke D'Arcy, who heads U.S. operations for Sigfox and was the first U.S. hire of the approximately five-year-old firm, said the company wants to make its protocol an open standard, and are putting it through a European standards body. "We're committed to making it a standard," he said.

D'Arcy said that that an open standard will drive volume, and while it may bring competitors using the same technology, users want the security of supply by having a couple of different vendors. Creating an open standard is "strategically quite a good things for us," he said.

D'Arcy says there will be some IoT applications that need higher data rates, but a majority of connections will be low bandwidth, including things like sensors that check air quality and smart meters. The hardware required to enable Sigfox capability cost less than $2, he said.

In its various markets, Sigfox seeks out a cellular provider and uses its sites and towers and backhaul, which connects it to the network, but Sigfox specific radios and antennas are needed. Its frequency band works in parallel with existing networks. Each base station can handle one million connections, and by adding an antenna they can double capacity, said D'Arcy.

Forrester's Ried believes Sigfox could become "a very interesting and big company," but its success in the U.S. will depend in finding good equipment makers who leverage its network, especially wearable computing. "This is the ideal use case because that's a device that quickly goes into the millions," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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