The Internet of Things requires a number of different elements to come together. Across homes and cities around the world, millions of sensors and actuators at one end need to be connected to the Internet, often via wireless links, and often across large areas. All that data has to be collated and analysed to provide the useful information for operators and customers. This needs highly efficient, low cost wireless transceivers, a network optimised for low power and cloud-based data management and analysis tools.

Back in 2009, Sigfox saw this challenge clearly. It started to build networks that could support the millions of sensors needed for the IoT, and worked with chip suppliers to implement a low cost, highly efficient wireless protocol that can be cost effectively rolled out across company sites and cities. At the same time, it also developed the network management tools and cloud-based data analysis capabilities that can provide the much needed information.

Over the last few years the networks have expanded to cover 17 countries across Europe, America and Asia. Oman joins New Zealand and Australia as the latest implementations, and the company plans to cover 60 countries by 2020.

Over 7m sensors across the world are already connected to the Internet through the technology. For example, system integrator Econocom uses a network of connected buttons on the Sigfox network to enable French company Servair to improve logistics efficiency and better secure the runways at Paris Orly Airport. In Lyon, a network of sensors is being attached to buses and trams to measure real-time air quality in the city. The Lyon Air platform, to be launched soon, will be fully monitored in the cloud.

GRT Gaz, one of Europe’s biggest natural gas transportation companies, is using simple terminals on a Sigfox network to continuously monitor the condition of its gas distribution network. The terminals immediately transmit signals if sensors detect any changes in their position.

All this is made possible by the ultra-narrowband (UNB) technology developed by Sigfox. This uses binary phase-shift keying (BPSK) in thin slices of spectrum that can be easily implemented on low cost sub-GHz wireless transceivers that operate in the unlicensed bands at 868MHz in Europe and 915MHz in the US. The technology is optimised for uplinks, as the basestation can implement more error correction than the end node to provide a connection. Sigfox has worked with suppliers such as ON Semiconductor to provide a low cost end node that operators can use to connect to the network.

To keep the power and complexity of the node at a minimum, the protocol assumes that each node will send up to 140 messages per day, each with a payload of just 12 bytes of data. All this needs data rates of just 100bit/s and means the nodes can run for over a decade from a single battery.

At the same time the company has rolled out networks of basestations in cities around the world that can be used with a wide range of different sensor technologies. The basestations have a range of 30 to 50km in rural areas or across company sites, or 3km to 10km in cities. Each basestation can support up to a million end nodes, and this helps to minimise the number of basestations that Sigfox needs to roll out to get good coverage. This means is just 1200 basestations are needed to cover France and 1300 for Spain.

Sigfox also works with system integrators and network operators who can install the basestations across public and private company sites so that the sensors can be used. Arquiva, for example, has so far rolled out Sigfox networks in ten cities across the UK to provide access to the IoT.

All the data from the millions of sensors around the world is fed into the Sigfox cloud so that it can be accessed by the appropriate partners, operators and customers in real time.

Now Sigfox has teamed up with Microsoft to link its own cloud to Microsoft’s Azure IoT Hub, which provides an easy and secure way to connect and control millions of devices. The collaboration allows users to access both Sigfox’s network and the advanced analytics and storage on Azure to collect, analyse and visualise large quantities of operational data produced by their connected devices and applications. The deal makes a lot of sense for large operators who want to develop their own analytics using the Azure Hub rather than the Sigfox system. 

This is a key step in the evolution of the IoT, as it provides an alternative to investing large amounts of resources to develop and manage data storage and management themselves. Having the Sigfox networks available makes it easy to connect up existing devices or new designs to the IoT and get quick and easy access to the data.

One of the key challenges for the IoT is bringing together the disparate data sources from the rapid proliferation of connected devices, handling the scale of the aggregate stream, and ensuring a variety of platforms and protocols work together harmoniously. This combination of the Sigfox network and Azure IoT allows customers to more easily integrate devices connected to the Sigfox network in their existing systems and will drive more use of the networks as the IoT rolls out around the world.