Nexo spoke with Bertand Ramé, Senior Vice President, International, Sigfox.

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Bertrand, thank you so much for talking with us today. Before we discuss your own role at Sigfox, can you please just let our readers know, what exactly is Sigfox?

Sigfox was started, in France, 10 years ago, with the objective to find a way to more efficiently connect things to the internet. To give objects an ability to talk and to communicate.

Although this was possible using existing technologies, at the time it was not possible in a cost effective, battery efficient, global, and simple manner.

We began working on developing a new technology to optimise the way for those devices to communicate. About five or six years ago, before anyone knew the name ‘Sigfox’, we started to test our technology, in France, installing base-stations and radio equipment to collect messages from devices.

The first network we installed was well received in the French marketplace and this is when, really, the adventure started.

We had a real product, a real technology and a real strategy to expand globally, which is our ultimate goal, to offer connectivity capabilities to devices around the world.

That, in a nutshell, is what Sigfox is.

Thank you very much, can you now just tell us about your role at Sigfox and what your team is trying to achieve.

Yes sure. I joined Sigfox five years ago and my current team is mainly responsible for three things.

Number one is geographical expansion of the Sigfox capability. When I joined five years ago, Sigfox was up and working in five countries, pretty much all in western Europe. France, as I mentioned before, was the first country that we implemented, also Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and the UK

The value of Sigfox is proportionate to the number of countries we cover, so the more countries we have the more value we bring to our customers and our partners. Geographical expansion is the first mission. We have now reached 67 countries worldwide, in five years. I believe that is second to none in the telecoms industry, to deploy a technology in more than 65 countries in just five years, and we are continuing to expand.

Our focus is now shifting from geographical expansion to connectivity. Having a network is all fine, but then you need to connect things to the network. Although we have been starting to do this in the last few years, the second mission of my team is to make sure that we support our Sigfox Operators.

Sigfox Operators are partners that we use in each and every country to deploy the network. The mission is to help them deploy their network and develop their connectivity business by connecting ‘things’ to their networks.

The third mission is linked to the second. We need to find the right ecosystem partners who can propose solutions and devices that are compatible with the Sigfox technology.

During the last few years, we have been working on developing partnerships with module makers, device makers, and platform developers to make sure that there are as many Sigfox solutions as possible available on the market.

Once you have the network and the device, then, suddenly, you have a solution that you can sell to your customers.

Considering our own industry, for all those folks around the world looking to connect their food and drink assets, why is Sigfox an important company?

Sigfox’s focus is in two areas.

One is asset tracking and the other is asset monitoring.

Many people see Sigfox as being a B2C company, but our main use cases and our main activity today is definitely in B2B. Optimising processes, and the cost of managing a business.

In your industry, and in the food and drink market in general, your customers and you need to manage assets. You need to know where the assets are, you need to know whether or not those assets are operational, you need to understand whether those assets are being used to your and your customers’ satisfaction. Sigfox enables the collection and interpretation of this information and then allows you to make the right decisions at the right time.

Connecting an asset will allow companies to more proactively manage their business and do this in a cost-effective way. Your business is international in nature and the global coverage that Sigfix provides allows us to help companies like yours manage your assets more effectively worldwide. The international aspect is usually the trickiest. A unique, worldwide, solution has always proven very difficult, but Sigfox makes it possible.

I’m sure our readers, would like to understand why you have chosen to make one of your company’s focus points this particular industry and then why you want to work with companies, such as our own, to help make your objectives in this industry happen?

For a while now, it has been possible to put devices in fridges or in coolers to track certain information, including location, temperature, door openings, etc. What has been a struggle, particularly in the last few years, has been the availability of suitable technology that manages to collect this data cost effectively. So, the Return on Investment (ROI) would not be there and therefore as a company there wouldn’t be any justification to invest in such solutions. That cost aspect is key.

Cost in the connectivity business doesn’t only come from the network, it also comes from the device. Available solutions in the marketplace, using traditional cellular technologies, allow you to do things similar to those that Sigfox can, but they cannot do it in a cost-effective way. A device using cellular technology not only costs more but will also have significant battery life issues. Cellular technologies constantly communicate on the network, whereas Sigfox technology is optimised to communicate only when necessary. It is also possible to provide significant savings on battery life, not just for weeks and months, but for years, maybe even dozens of years, and as I said before, doing this in a seamless international way.

Those things are only available today by using Sigfox technology. This is why I think, all of a sudden, you, as a business, can consider connecting all of your assets, whereas previously cost and capability meant this wasn’t a viable option.

Thank you. You’ve highlighted the key strengths that Sigfox can offer, and you’ve highlighted the unique combination of elements that Sigfox offers.

I’m sure you can appreciate it must be quite difficult for any of our customers that are facing these choices for the first time when, up to a couple of years ago, the only choice they had was to use mobile cellular.

Is there anything else you would like to say about Sigfox in comparison to the likes of cellular, or competitors such as LoRa or MQTT.

The first thing I would like to say, which may come as a surprise, is that we don’t really consider cellular, or LoRa, or others, as competitors.

I think we are complementary to one another, in the sense that we bring capabilities that cellular does not bring and similarly we bring capabilities that LoRa doesn’t bring.

There are cases where each technology is the best option. LoRa, for example, is more oriented towards private networks. So, if you are a company with one, two or three locations, heavily concentrated in specific areas and you are willing to invest your own time and your own money in building and managing a network, then possibly LoRa is the right way to go.

However, if you are in a business spread either nationally or internationally, you need coverage which goes beyond a specific location and you are not interested in spending time or money in building a network because this is not the core business. In this scenario Sigfox is the way to go, because we are offering a service not just a technology.

With regards to cellular, again, being complimentary is key and we have several use cases where customers use both cellular and Sigfox. One being the back-up of the other, because Sigfox does bring features that cellular does not.

To give you an example, cellular technology is simple to jam. A cellular radio signal can be destroyed using a jammer bought on the internet for $20, meaning your 2G or 3G signal is basically inoperable. Sigfox is extremely difficult to jam so some companies use Sigfox as a back-up to cellular, because they know that 3G might be jammed by people who are interested in blocking the signal.

Additionally, battery life is a key differentiator between cellular and Sigfox. When you use your cell phone  it is constantly connecting to the network, sending messages back and forth saying ‘analyse, analyse, analyse’. This is why the battery life on your mobile phone lasts for less than 24 hours. Sigfox doesn’t work like this. Sigfox devices send a message and then go to sleep until the next time they are supposed to send a message. That’s a key differentiator which allows Sigfox technology to last for years on batteries when cellular technology cannot last more than days or weeks, or at best months, when it’s really optimised

That’s good to know, it’s certainly critical for all those retrofit opportunities that our customers have out there.

We started to talk a little about geographical coverage earlier and you mentioned that Sigfox is currently rolled out in 67 countries. Obviously, some of our customers operate in well over 100 countries, so what would you say to customers of ours where they look at a company like yours and see geographical coverage as a possible concern?

We expand our network by selecting a Sigfox Operator in every country we move into. We sign an agreement with each Sigfox Operator giving them exclusivity to install and manage the Sigfix network and also commercialise the technology in their own territory.

Today we have 67 agreements, signed with 67 Sigfox operators around the world. In each country these agreements are in different stages of maturity. Some we have only signed recently, some have been in place for five or six years.

Our network coverage is constantly improving, increasing month after month. 67 countries obviously isn’t full global coverage but it does cover pretty much the top 50 GDPs around the world.

There are only two significant exceptions where we do not yet have a Sigfox operator in place. They are Russia and China, but we are actively working to finalise agreements in 2020.

Thank you.

I wonder if I might just dive a little deeper and ask another question that has been posed by some of our customers…

When you are in the roll out process and you don’t yet have coverage of the entire country, how are you going to be able to ensure that they are going to be able to use Sigfox everywhere that they want to?

We work with our Sigfox Operators in two ways.

Firstly, there is an agreement with coverage commitment, so those Sigfox Operators are committed to delivering a certain coverage, usually within the first three years of operation, and at the end of that (typically) three year period we expect to achieve coverage of at least 85% of the population and, depending on the country, on average 50% of the territory.

When you talk about a country like Brazil, for example, or Saudi, or China, 80% of the country doesn’t have any human presence so reaching 50% is already a stretch for those countries.

When you talk about Western Europe, our coverage easily reaches 90/95% of the territory because there is human presence pretty much everywhere.

That being said, sometimes customers drive demand for coverage. Sigfox technology is very straightforward to install; one engineer takes around two hours to install a base station on a roof-top or a simple location. It’s very simple, there is no comparison with cellular technology which is a lot more complex.

Another option, which we implemented recently, and launched almost two years ago, is a micro-base station. This is a small base station that can be purchased by clients and installed in any location where they need instant coverage. That micro base station would be able to cover a warehouse or a building almost instantaneously so customers and Sigfox Operators have the capability to extend coverage when and where they need it.

We are also looking to expand using satellite coverage. We have announced a partnership with a satellite company and we plan to cover all the remote areas that we are not able to cover with terrestrial antennas, such as oceans, forests, and deserts.

The plan is to cover those areas using satellite connectivity. We expect it to take probably the next two or three years to reach satisfactory satellite coverage. Satellite coverage will become an extension to the terrestrial coverage which our Sigfox Operators are currently working on.

By 2023 we expect to be in 100 countries, including the big ones I just mentioned before, with an overlay coverage using satellite guaranteeing pretty much full global coverage.

That’s really good to know, thank you.

Just one final question from us, if we may…

I’m always keen to understand what is it that you understand now about your mission, particularly in our field, that you didn’t understand when you started working on it?

Generally speaking, I think IoT has created a lot of buzz, a lot of activity and a lot of analysis from a lot of consultants. Everybody has been talking about IoT as the next big thing. It is the next big thing. However, it’s not as simple as it looks. There is a combination of three things that need to come together for IoT to succeed.

The first thing is the network coverage, which is Sigfox’s core business, but the network alone doesn’t bring you any value.

The second thing is, you need to have a working device. It’s fair to say that one of the bigger challenges that we have faced in the last five years is convincing device makers, module makers, and chip-set makers to embed Sigfox in their own product. This took longer than we had anticipated in the beginning and I think we understand why.

Before anybody in the hardware industry is willing to invest time and money in embedding new technologies in devices, they need to be absolutely convinced that the technology is worth investing in.

Six years ago Sigfox was not a recognized technology that people were willing to invest in from a hardware standpoint. However, we are now seeing an acceleration of acceptance. We are signing very interesting agreements with big players in the hardware and electronics field, such as Alps, Lite-On, HT Micron, and Wisol, and this is key for the success of Sigfox moving forward.

The third thing is the platform. You need software, and platforms to analyse and display all the data being collected from the devices. That software element is, I think, pretty much ok. There have been a lot of platforms developed and software development is typically faster than hardware development. Any adjustments that you need to make to your platform to integrate Sigfox devices in your capability are simple and quick.

The combination of these three elements, which are typically driven by three different players, took more time than we had anticipated. We are there now, and we have seen a massive increase, especially in the number of devices that are Sigfox-ready.

We are now reaching, I think, seven or eight hundred different devices, which is crucial to the acceleration of connectivity and of connecting things.

Regarding your own business, more specifically… You look at a concept and you think a technology would work, but until you do the right Proof of Concept (PoC) you simply do not know. You have to test the right technology with the right device in the right place, whether your connectivity is in the fridge, outside the fridge, indoors or deep indoors. You need to complete a lot of pre-work to make sure it works and, the three components that I mentioned before need to be adjusted.

It’s not just about the network, it’s not just about the device, and it’s not just about the software or platform. It’s a combination of these three things.

This testing phase is always necessary, and it always takes more time, because you need a genuinely relevant, ‘real-world’ PoC before going full speed.  This is one of the key learnings that I have seen in the years I have been with this company.

Bertrand, thank you very much for your candid and comprehensive answers, I know they are going to be really fascinating to our customer base, who are dealing with some of these issues for the first time.