SIGFOX WORLD IOT EXPO, PRAGUE: Proprietary low power wide area (LPWA) IoT player Sigfox built bridges with its cellular LPWA rivals, as a trio of mobile operator customers at its event bemoaned the challenge of turning IoT proof of concepts into large-scale commercial agreements.

Dual chipset
Joining Sigfox on stage this morning, Telefonica, Telia and T-Mobile welcomed Sigfox’s launch of a new dual chipset, in partnership with GCT Semiconductor, which is compatible with both cellular LPWA technologies (NB-IoT, LTE-M and EC-GSM) and Sigfox’s own unlicensed IoT technology.

Sigfox said the chip – dubbed the “world’s first hybrid (cellular + Sigfox) solution for IoT” – will help with the deployment of various IoT devices for applications including trackers, wearables, healthcare, industrial and other consumer applications.

The company said “several OEM customers” are working with the new chip, while CEO Ludovic Le Moan stated: “GCT provides a single chip innovative solution that further proves that Sigfox and Cellular (LTE Cat-M1/NB1/EC-GSM) are complementary technologies by leveraging the best of both worlds – ultra-long battery life using Sigfox and high throughput cellular connectivity.”

Le Moan added: “We look forward to a successful launch of the GDM7243I by Sigfox operators and mobile network operators worldwide.”

During a panel session Milan Haba, programme director of integrated network strategy at T-Mobile Czech Republic, said “I can only say that I welcome this initiative because it eases the life of customers,” adding life would be a lot easier “if there were less LPWA technologies available”.

Haba added the “hardware piece” of the IoT story was the most challenging, because so many of its partners lack the capability of turning an IoT use case into a commercially ready product.

“A lot of them are still in the prototype phase. Of course, we can test their devices but once it comes to commercial negotiations, in many cases, we cannot see big surprises,” he said.

“There is the issue that customers do not want to go directly for 100,000 devices, they instead want to go for small volume. This is also hard for the vendors, because they are only ready to produce devices at large numbers.”

Also on the panel, Andres Escribano, IoT global connectivity business director at Telefonica, said the operator decided to “attack” the IoT market, but the real challenge lies in convincing business decision makers, and not the technology teams, to realise “IoT is a game changer to a business”.

He also said the company’s strategy centred on providing a global solution and building such an ecosystem was proving to be a sticking point.

“Globalisation is one of the key topics we try to solve. If different components are designed for specific use cases, and we are unable to replicate this around the world, we have a problem in justifying that it really is a global solution.”

Telefonica, which signed a global IoT connectivity deal with Sigfox earlier this year, believes there are three major elements to its IoT solution: hardware, network and then the application.

“If all three do not cover customers’ expectations, we are not able to push the wider goal of digital transformation within a business,” said Escribano.

Start-up mentality
Telia Eesti’s IoT business manager, Toomas Karner, added speed was “crucial” in bringing an IoT proof of concept to market.

“If a project goes into an area where you present a proof concept and then negotiate with the customer repeatedly, pick another project,” he said, adding: “When you do such a project and calculate the hours you have spent, the economics will not work out anyway.”

Karner said the company was, therefore, approaching its IoT business with a start-up mentality.

“When we see a problem, we try to address it with a trial within a week. We may know the technology but the customer does not. They want to see something, touch and feel it. We focus on getting something working and see if its viable. It’s a start-up approach from a big company.”

Despite their presence at the event, Telefonica, Telia and T-Mobile are very unlikely to commit themselves exclusively to Sigfox technology for LPWA. In fact Telefonica and T-Mobile, in particular, have been very supportive of the commercial deployment of cellular LPWA technologies, and the cellular camp is gaining serious traction in 2017 with launches.

However, Sigfox can at least count on some support after striking a deal in 2016 with France-based Altice. The support from the European tier one operator trio also helps Sigfox in the battle with unlicensed rival LoRa.