IoT Connectivity – Bigger, better, higher, faster. That’s the usual mantra for electronics innovation, where standing still is the same as running backwards. But there’s something to be said for slowing down and smelling the proverbial roses. It’s relaxing. And it’s cheap.
Amid all the expensive and incessantly hyped build-out of 5G wireless networks (including some egregious mislabeling of older technology), there’s a company that’s quietly moving in the opposite direction. They’ve built a “0G” network that’s unapologetically slow, unsexy, and low-tech. It trades off high bandwidth for low cost and longer battery life. It’s the Newton’s Third Law of innovation: equal, but in the opposite direction.
Sigfox has been around for ten years and has connected over 15 million IoT devices to the cloud during that time, with the adoption rate rising rapidly. The company is essentially a wireless carrier, just like AT&T, Verizon, Vodaphone, Airtel, or any of the other familiar conglomerates. But, where those companies race to upgrade their networks and increase bandwidth (and thus, revenue), Sigfox is content to sit on the sidelines and quietly maintain its low-end network for slow IoT devices.
How slow? Would you believe 100 bps? That’s not gigabits or megabits; it’s bits per second. That’s slightly faster than two tin cans and some string. You can almost see the data moving through the air. Messages are packetized, just like grown-up networks, but the payload is limited to just 12 bytes. And, you can transmit only a few such packets per day. Not recommended for Netflix. Or even email.
The advantage of this retro medium is that it’s dirt cheap and dead reliable. How does $3 per year sound? That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than wireless plans for the latest smartphones, and it’s even cheaper than limited data-only plans for connected IoT devices, which typically run about $5/month. Sigfox’s limitations may be severe, but the price is certainly attractive.
The company is able to offer such old-fashioned prices by relying on old-fashioned technology. It’s wireless, but it’s not cellular – more radio than cellphone. Its network uses the unlicensed 900-MHz ISM (industrial, scientific, medical) band, which is popular with all sorts of low-power equipment. But physics works on its side. Because of its comparatively long wavelength compared to cellular signals, ISM transmissions carry a long way in clear air. Sigfox says its base stations have a range of dozens of miles. The entire city of San Francisco, for example, is covered by just 17 Sigfox base stations, versus about 250 for Verizon’s 4G wireless network.