IoT Network Provider Sigfox, with Bankruptcy Protection, Seeks Buyers

By Claire Swedberg

The French company has a six-month observation period during which it plans to seek investors or buyers so it can continue technology development.

Sigfox, a global network operator for low-power, wireless connectivity, has filed for bankruptcy protection as it seeks a buyer or investor to continue operation as an Internet of Things (IoT) technology provider. The company's proprietary IoT wireless network is in use by businesses that are managing data regarding the locations or conditions of goods or assets.

The receivership/rehabilitation procedure, filed in Toulouse, France, provides an observation period of six months so Sigfox can continue its business activity while seeking a buyer or investor. Sigfox reports that it filed for protection due to a slow adoption cycle caused, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to slower than expected activity throughout the past two years, the firm has faced electric component shortages, and it now faces increased debt levels.

Steve Hoffenberg

Under the agreement (which is similar to Chapter 11) the company and its subsidiary, Sigfox France-SAS, will continue to operate. "The observation period will allow the identification, through the implementation of a takeover plan, of new buyers able to support Sigfox's long-term development and propose to maintain jobs," a spokesperson explains. The company adds that its receivers have initiated a competitive bidding process with a deadline of Feb. 25, 2022.

Sigfox was founded in 2010 as one of the first providers of ultra-narrowband (UNB) technology, using the 868 MHz frequency in Europe and 902 MHz in the United States. Its low-power signal is designed to require less energy than traditional cellular networks, such as GSM, and it can transmit at a distance to Sigfox gateways, enabling relatively low-cost IoT solutions. Sigfox reports that it has 19.5 million registered devices in use throughout 75 countries, with 1.4 billion people living within its worldwide network area.

After Sigfox was launched to provide the first widely deployed public wireless network using low-power, wide-area communications for the IoT, it raised more than $300 million from investors within the first few years of its existence (see  Sigfox Raises Recording-Breaking $115 Million). Those investors included  NTT, Samsung and  SK Telecom. It has also partnered with companies in the LPWAN industry, such as  ON Semiconductor, Silicon Labs and  Texas Instruments (see  Sigfox-Certified Modules with TI RF Transceivers and  Eyeing Environmental Monitoring, Oceasoft Rolls Out Sigfox-compliant Sensors). During the past financial year, however, the company posted a net loss of about $102 million.

In the decade-plus since that launch, other IoT technology companies have emerged to provide competing networks that have been growing in recent years. These networks have included LoRaWAN, NB-IoT and LTE-M. While Sigfox had some first-to-market advantages during its early years, the competitors' solutions have offered additional benefits that have put them at the front of the pack. Of all the IoT connectivity using low-power, wide-area wireless connectivity currently in place, Sigfox represents 2 to 3 percent of the units, according to Steve Hoffenberg,  VDC Research's director of industry analysis for IoT and embedded technologies.

New technologies have offered solutions to a few shortcomings faced by the Sigfox network. For instance, Hoffenberg says, the payload capabilities of the Sigfox messages are very small—only 12 bytes of data transmitted at once—and there are constraints on how it can be used, including how many messages can be sent per day. Other systems, such as those based on LoRaWAN, operate with an open standard, can send more data than the Sigfox technology and offer additional features. Such technologies provide the ability, for example, to not only send a message but confirm that it has been received.

The LoRaWAN standard has a proprietary component in the form of its semiconductor, which is owned by  Semtech. However, Semtech licenses its technology to other companies, and effectively the rest of the technology is open-standard. As a result, Hoffenberg says, "There are lots of companies making and building the [LoRa] sensors and devices that use [LoRaWAN open standard]." Other cellular-based systems feature open standards based on GSM, he adds, which can expand the capabilities to a broader potential audience. The other networks also provide the ability to download firmware to IoT devices, which offers a security benefit.

"As time has progressed," Hoffenberg states, "particularly as there are more and more security vulnerabilities found in communication software, a lot of device manufacturers want that capability to be able to update firmware in the field." However, he says, Sigfox's technology offers several benefits over some of its competitors' systems. For one thing, the technology is low in cost—in fact, the company has indicated that it intends to bring the price of its sensor modules down to about 30 cents apiece.

In addition, Hoffenberg reports, Sigfox is conducting development work around creating a biodegradable IoT module. Such a product could potentially be used and then disposed of in such a way that it would biodegrade, including the battery or power-storage components and electronics (see  Ultra-Cheap, Long-Life, Green-By-Design—Sigfox Teases Biodegradable IoT at $0.30). These features could open up new use cases, he says, by which modules could be used in a disposable fashion. That could include an application by which a business might only want to use an IoT device for a limited span of time, or for only one or two incidents, making a higher-cost solution too expensive.

Recently, Sigfox announced a collaboration with semiconductor companies  HT Micron and  Nowi to develop energy-harvesting power-management technology as a step toward creating a more sustainable solution. The company reported the use cases would include smart metering, industrial censoring, asset tracking and air quality monitoring.

When it comes to development around low-cost and sustainable products, Hoffenberg says, "I think that's where they're hoping they can get an infusion of new capital or an application that can enable further development in this area." Because the product's biodegradable feature is entirely new to the market, it will require several years of development, Sigfox executives have speculated. "It really involves developing some new technology that doesn't already exist yet, with respect to electronic circuits and power-storage capability that could be biodegradable." Hoffenberg says.

This Sigfox announcement will not have an immediate impact on the rest of the Internet of Things market, Hoffenberg predicts. The LPWAN ecosystem has been expanding at a very rapid clip, he says, with a growing number of vendors making and selling the various components, modules and other devices that utilize the technologies. NB-IoT has its largest traction in China, where the Chinese government is actively encouraging adoption of the technology, while LTE-M and LoRa are two of the largest players worldwide.

Claire Swedberg has been covering RFID technology for RFID Journal since 2005. She also contributes to magazines on subjects such as electrical installations and alternative energy. She is the author of five historical nonfiction books and teaches an adult writing class.