IoT network will look to the skies for better coverage

Low-power wireless provider Sigfox has joined a satellite venture

Wide-area wireless networks for connecting Internet of Things devices may go global through a partnership between hot IoT startup Sigfox and aerospace company Airbus.

Sigfox builds long-range networks for devices such as sensors that need a wireless connection but are too small and power-constrained for cellular radios. Its networks use unlicensed frequencies and don't go more than a few hundred bits per second, but they cost as little as US$1 per connection, per year.

The French company has now joined the Mustang Project, co-founded by Airbus Defence and Space and two R&D partners in France. The project plans to combine Sigfox's terrestrial networks with satellite coverage to achieve global coverage.

Satellite data service can be made available in almost any outdoor location but tends to cost much more than land-based wireless.

With the Mustang Project, devices will be able to use Sigfox networks where they're available and automatically shift over to satellite everywhere else. The three-year project plans to develop a dual-mode chipset and automatic switching capability for devices that will use the networks.

IoT is an umbrella term for a wide range of technologies to connect new things to the Internet. Some of those things will sit in factories or in consumers' homes, but others will end up far from conventional networks or power sources. For example, sensors on mines or pipelines can report on current conditions on site, and tiny radios attached to enterprise assets or goods in transit can show where they are. Many will rely on batteries that have to last years.

Sigfox is already trying to cover as much of the planet as it can. It's built a network throughout France and worked with a carrier partner to cover Spain. With another partner, it's tackling the U.K., and next month Sigfox plans to announce the completion of a network around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sigfox says it's trying to get its technology standardized at the 3GPP, which oversees LTE, and foster a broad ecosystem of network and device builders. Its plans earned a vote of confidence earlier this month in a $115 million funding round.

But Sigfox is only one player in the emerging world of LPWAN (low-power, wide-area networks). At CES last month, companies including IBM, Cisco Systems, Singtel and KPN formed the LoRa Alliance to promote LoRaWAN technology. Other available or emerging LPWAN systems include Weightless and RPMA (Random Phase Multiple Access).

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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