In another significant step towards a true Internet of Things (IoT), French communications company SigFox is bringing its wireless “network of things” – already in use in Europe – to northern California. Projected to span the Bay Area from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley before expanding to the East Coast, SigFox’s network will be significantly different from the other connectivity projects already at work in the Bay Area in one key respect: on SigFox’s network, there are no people allowed.
One of the big obstacles in the way of an IoT is how crowded existing wireless networks already are. According to the US Census Bureau, there are more mobile devices than people on earth. GSMA’s real-time tracker puts the number of mobile devices at 7.22 billion whilst the US Census Bureau says the number of people is still somewhere between 7.19 and 7.2 billion. This is putting a massive strain on cellular networks that are transmitting vast quantities of data as people stream video, play games, send video messages and take advantage of all the other possibilities of wireless communication. The only reason the cellular networks don’t collapse under the strain is that no one’s phone or tablet is engaging in data-heavy activity 100% of the time, allowing data usage to be spread out a little – and even then, there are still times and places wherein calls get dropped and streaming slows to a crawl. Adding connected “things” – like electricity meters and smart security systems – that need to be online 24/7 is just too much for our already-taxed networks to handle.
That’s where SigFox’s network represents a giant leap forward. Using an unlicensed 900 MHz spectrum, which saves on cost, SigFox’s network neither supports nor allows phones and tablets. Instead, the network is only available to items equipped with SigFox firmware, available on an inexpensive chip that can be easily added to any object with smart technology. The technology itself is nothing new; in fact, it’s roughly the same technology that was used for submarine to submarine communication during World War I, and allows cordless phones to talk to their base stations. However, what is new is how SigFox is deploying the network; via a series of small nodes placed on buildings in San Francisco and throughout Silicon Valley. Because these nodes communicate exclusively on the 900 MHz narrowband spectrum, a mere 1,500 nodes can do the same work that would take 20,000 nodes to do on a cellular network.
The speed available on SigFox’s network is minuscule compared to the networks available for cellphones and tablets; a mere 100 bits per second, which is slower than most mobile networks by a factor of 1,000. But unless your fitness tracker or smart home security system really likes watching Netflix, that slow speed is more than enough for most of the things that will use this network to communicate. It only takes a tiny packet of data for a home security system to alert you to a breach via a notification on your smartphone, and for data packets that small, the modest network speed only slows down communication by fractions of a second.
A true Internet of Things is a vision of our devices and appliances communicating and adjusting entirely autonomously in the background of our daily lives – with SigFox’s cellular network, they can do that on their own private channel. This is the first big step towards a life surrounded by smart technology meant to make our lives easier. Either that, or John Conner was right and this is the start of Skynet.