For the Internet of things, a cheap but slow network

To connect everything from roaming pets to rural fire alarms to the network, startup Sigfox thinks its low-cost narrowband network technology will be key.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Sigfox CEO Ludovic le Moan speaking at LeWeb 2012.
Sigfox CEO Ludovic le Moan speaking at LeWeb 2012. Stephen Shankland/CNET

PARIS -- Wi-Fi's range is too short, 3G and 4G are too expensive, and both use too much power. A French start-up called Sigfox, says it's licked these network problems -- at least for the idea called the Internet of things.

The Internet of things involves networking countless devices such as cars, toys, heart rate monitors, and traffic lights. These devices may not necessarily need the network capacity of a smartphone used to watch videos, but they need to connect from all over and they need to run on a small battery.

Sigfox's network, using a technology called ultra narrowband (UNB), can only handle data-transfer speeds of 10 to 1,000 bits per second. But the technology is very widespread -- the entire country of France is covered today, for example -- and very cheap.

"We can have a subscription fee of under $1 per year," said Sigfox CEO Ludovic le Moan here at the LeWeb conference. And the hardware is cheap: with the communication chip and modem costing less than $1, too.

The network that communicates with the devices then links them to the Internet is relatively inexpensive to build, too, he said.

"For a few hundred million euros, we are able to cover the world," le Moan said. "It's not very expensive to have a network covering every part of the globe."

Low power consumption is critical for devices that may not be plugged in. Sigfox's network devices consume 50 microwatts of power for one-way communication or 100 microwatts for two-way. In comparison, mobile-phone communication needs about 5,000 microwatts.