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​Sigfox finds partners for its contrarian network tech

Messages just 12 bytes long seem absurdly short for networking. But they're the foundation for this French company's growing network business.

The Traqueur is a GPS-enabled device that can help people find where their stolen car has gone. It uses Sigfox's low-speed but low-cost network.
The Traqueur is a GPS-enabled device that can help people find where their stolen car has gone. It uses Sigfox's low-speed but low-cost network. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- Most of the mobile industry is fixated on fast networks for smartphone subscribers. But a French startup called Sigfox is capturing attention and winning partners with its trend-bucking slow network.

A slow network might seem like the last thing anyone would want when it's time to send data. Sigfox, though, has found a significant customer base and some big-name partners because of some real benefits its pokey network -- low cost and low power consumption.

The company showed off several of those partnerships here at the Mobile World Congress show here. Sigfox-powered products include one device from Securitas that detects if a car has been stolen and another from Traqueur to track it afterward; a monitor from Seur making sure the "cold chain" is intact for refrigerated shipping; a public defibrillator station that warns its city minders when someone uses it or its battery runs low; a parking-space monitor that tells the city where the full and empty spots are and that can be used to bill drivers; and a meter to gauge the flow of a liquid combined with a remotely controlled on-off valve.

Sigfox has persuaded some that the technology is real. Several carriers and industrial partners just invested $115 million into Sigfox the company. Those investors include three major carriers, Telefonica, NTT Docomo and SK Telecom, which evidently would rather help Sigfox than crush it as a competitor, and Air Liquide, which likely wants to use Sigfox technology to help monitor the condition of the tanks of gases it sells.

Sigfox's contrarian approach is something of an anomaly at Mobile World Congress, which more than ever focuses on high-performance devices like Samsung's Galaxy S6 smartphone . Parking space monitors may not be as sexy as slick consumer electronics. But while the smartphone market is saturated in wealthy countries, the market for network-linked smarts like Sigfox enables is only beginning.

Carriers speaking at the mobile show expect somewhere between 25 billion and 100 billion devices to be linked through the Internet of Things, and while 4G and 5G networks may handle the lion's share, Sigfox has a head start with technology that works today.

But Sigfox isn't the only company pursuing the technology, called low-power, wide-area (LPWA) networking.

"I don't think there will only be one LPWA network globally," said Bryan Eagle, vice president of business development at competitor Multi-Tech Systems. "I think other technologies, including Multi-Tech's LoRa, will be serious contenders, especially in the US."

Tiny messages

The mainstream mobile industry caters to mobile phone users watching video and posting selfies, pumping as much data as possible over today's 4G network and racing to pump even more data with tomorrow's 5G. Sigfox, though, limits network message length to just 12 bytes and the number of messages themselves to just 140 per day for a given device.

What can you fit into a 12-byte message? If you're sending text, not much. With common character encoding systems, one byte gets you one letter, so 12 bytes gets you words like postprandial, gossipmonger, superannuate and honeysuckers. That makes Twitter's 140-character tweet limit look like prolixity.

But Sigfox's network isn't for that sort of thing. Dedicated software at each end of the connection can send a pretty specific message -- a particular control code, for example. With 12 bytes, you can represent any number between 1 and 79 octillion, which is a lot of control codes to pick from. A warning that a tank is empty or garbage bin is full doesn't even need 12 bytes. For data, it only takes 4 bytes to store latitude-longitude coordinates.

Low cost, low power

Of course, more data capacity would be useful. But Sigfox's constrained approach comes with perks.

First, the network is cheap to use -- $1 per year for customers with 50,000 devices or more. It can do so because Sigfox doesn't need nearly as many base station towers -- 1,200 to cover all France and 1,300 to cover all Spain, according to communication manager Nigel Reyes.

Second, the devices are cheaper, too. Radio electronics costing only about $1, too. That makes it economical to put network connections into lots of devices for which mobile networks would be unaffordable, in the view of Sigfox and several partners it's rounded up.

Last, Sigfox radio devices consume very, very little energy. The car-theft warning system works five years off two AA batteries, and the car-theft location tracker works up to 10 years if it's not communicating often. It can be set to transmit only if the car is moving, or only if it stops moving, and if a theft is detected could be set to communicate more frequently.

Sigfox uses a combination of unlicensed frequencies open to anyone's use. In Europe, that's 864MHz, and in the United States, 902MHz, Reyes said.

Updated at 4:14 am PT March 5 to correct the number range that can be described with a 12-byte number. It's 79 octillion.