Dialing in a Clear Signal on Low-Power Networks

Are low-power networks key to ramping up the Internet of Things?
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 10, 2014

Objects can be connected with each other and to the Internet via a long and growing list of wireless technologies and networking protocols. For applications in which communicating with objects does not require high bandwidth, or by which an end user wants to install a backup communication network to ensure connectivity if the primary cellular and Wi-Fi network fails, ultra-narrowband (UNB) technology could be a good fit.

UNB technology relies on very narrow slices of the unlicensed ISM frequency band to connect devices over long distances with low battery consumption. It has long been used for niche applications, such as the automatic reading of utility meters. But now, a number of companies, including French firm Sigfox and Neul (founded in the United Kingdom but recently purchased by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei), are working hard to advance UNB as an alternative to cellular-based connectivity for a range of IoT deployments.

Thomas Nicholls, Sigfox's head of communication
M2M Spectrum Networks, based in Phoenix, Ariz., also offers a low-power machine-to-machine communication network. It does not use UNB, but rather allocates unused spectrum transmitted over what CEO Barclay Knapp calls "cognitive radios" that send and receive data via 800 MHz, 900 MHz or 200 MHz signals (see M2M Spectrum Launches Nationwide Wireless Machine-to-Machine Network). The company is building out its network in a handful of U.S. states, including Georgia and Florida. It is already offering its service in remote parts of North Dakota, where a trucking company is using it to track its fleet and drivers in the Bakken oil fields.

Sigfox has rolled out its network via UNB antennas and gateways, operating at 868 MHz, installed across a number of European cities. In the United States, where it will use the unlicensed 902 MHz band, it is currently building out infrastructure in order to debut its technology in the region, extending from San Francisco to the cities of Silicon Valley, located 40 miles south.

Thomas Nicholls, Sigfox's head of communication, told IOT Journal that his company believes its low-power, ultra-narrowband technology is the key to scaling the Internet of Things. Realizing Cisco's projection that there will be 50 billion things linked to the IoT by 2020, he says, "won't happen with existing connectivity solutions." Linking devices over cellular networks present two main problems that UNB addresses, he adds: high connectivity costs and short battery life.

"The majority of linked objects would never need access to high-bandwidth connectivity," Nicholls states. In addition, the batteries used to power them generally cannot be easily recharged or replaced. Using the Sigfox networks, he explains, allows for both "long battery life and connectivity at low cost," thanks to operating on the unlicensed ISM band.

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