How to connect the internet of things: Lora vs Sigfox
Are you working on a project for the ubiquitous Internet of Things? We compare two networking technologies to help you connect with the world!
The term “Internet of Things” has become an inescapable buzzword (and an often annoyingly abused one at that). But it’s also rapidly becoming a reality. We take a closer look at two of the networking technologies that can support a world of connecting devices. LoRaWAN versus SIGFOX - which should you be using for your next IoT project?
Before we dive into the details of LoRa and SIGFOX, however, it’s worth talking a little more about Low–Power Wide-Area Networks – the category both our contenders fall under – first.
We’ve all been using technologies like GPRS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, etc. to connect our “things” to the internet. But these are costly technologies, in more than one way. Not are they often expensive (requiring monthly subscriptions, radio chipset, installation, …), they are also far from modest in terms of power consumption.
This is where Low–Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) technologies come into play. Low-Power Wide Area Networks have existed for a couple of years now, but they gained in popularity due to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). These types of networks, usually operating in the sub-GHz spectrum, are a perfect fit for IoT and M2M solutions that need to send small packages of data over a (very) long distance.
A good LPWAN works over a long distance (between 5 and 40km in open field) and is ultra low-power, with a battery life of 10 to 20 years. The parts needed to support LPWAN are cheap - a €2 (or less) radio chipset and a €1 yearly radio subscription cost per device should suffice. The networks can support a throughput of typically a few hundred bits/s, and transmission latency is not a requirement (most IoT devices are insensitive to latency). On top of that, a functioning LPWAN requires few base stations, with each station being able to serve thousands of devices, and can offer excellent coverage and penetration, even in rural areas, in buildings or underground.
In this post, we’re discussing the two main upcoming LPWANs, dedicated to IoT and M2M applications: SIGFOX and LoRaWAN.
Let’s talk business
Although the technologies and business models behind the two companies are very different, they do share the same end goal: creating a global network for devices that need to send small packages of data over a long distance.
Both companies depend on mobile network operators to adopt their technology and deploy their IoT networks across cities, and eventually countries and continents. LoRa’s approach means that even crowdsourced networks are possible (eg. The Things Network); their gateways are not super-expensive and have a reach of a few kilometers.
This is possible because LoRaWAN is not a company, but a standard maintained by a bunch of companies who united under the non-profit ‘LoRa Alliance’. Each of these companies profit in some way of having a soli open standard for IoT applications, and the LoRa Alliance promotes this standard to get as many developers and companies on board.
SIGFOX is a single company, maintaining the patented (closed) SIGFOX technology. They roll out and maintain their own network (sometimes through a partnership with a network operator). They profit directly from the subscription to their network.
Compare and Conquer
Because several of our clients have expressed interest in devices or projects that fall under the very broad IoT umbrella – and because Proximus, Belgium’s largest telco provider, is rolling out an LPWAN network – we decided it would be useful to list a number of important factors for completing an IoT project, and peg LoRa and SIGFOX against each other.
We’re not aiming to pass judgement – like always, both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses – but rather to give you a very clear overview of the sometimes subtle differences between the two.
Let’s start with the basics: availability. As stated, telco provider Proximus is currently rolling out a national network here in Belgium, based on LoRaWAN. A few of the larger cities are already live, and they’re expecting to be able to offer national coverage by the end of 2016. Another company, called ‘Wireless Things’ is also rolling out a national LoRA network. As we mentioned earlier, this is one of the important differentiators of LoRa’s offering: anyone can create their own network by buying/making and installing ‘Gateway’ devices. Internationally, LoRaWAN has convinced quite a few national telco’s to jump on the wagon and start rolling out networks. A few notable examples are KPN in the Netherlands (2016), Orange in France (2016), Digimondo in Germany (2016-17), and Telstra in Australia (2016). All of these are big players in their respective markets, which might benefit the awareness of the new network.
SIGFOX on the other hand builds and maintains its own network, although it also sometimes partners with telco providers. This is the case in Belgium, where utility provider Engie is planning to roll out the SIGFOX network, together with Telenet, by the end of 2016. Internationally, SIGFOX is expanding rapidly in Western Europe, the USA, Australia and parts of South America. You can see a map of their networks here.
The difference in approach and the collaborations with networks also creates a number of differences in pricing of both solutions. First off, there’s the price setting for network access (we had to make a few rough estimations here, as most of these are listed only as “on request”). In LoRa’s case, this depends entirely on the network provider. Proximus, for instance, offers network access for free during the beta period if you purchase one of their Dev Starter Kits. And if you’re setting up your own private network infrastructure, you can purchase or build it for amounts between €200-1500. Prototyping or starter kits set you back €75-400, and a radio module for use in custom PCBs costs €10 to €35.
Because SIGFOX is a private company offering access to its service and infrastructure, its pricing is arranged differently. Network access is calculated based on the amount of IoT devices you’re connecting (€1 to €15 per device per year), and some SIGFOX hardware modules come with a free one-year subscription to the network. Prototyping kits and individual radio modules are also cheaper, at about €60-100 for the former and €5-10 for the latter.
Another key area are the data packet and packet rate limitations. LoRa has a maximal packet size of 256 bytes, although this number can drop depending on the network provider or connection. Packet rate is also dependent on the provider; for Proximus, it’s a daily limit of 84 messages upstream (from the IoT device) and 12 messages downstream (to the IoT device). SIGFOX networks have a more modest maximal packet size of 12 bytes upstream and 8 bytes downstream, and a packet rate of no more than 140 messages per day.
Share the love
A key element for new technologies like LPWAN is the adoption rate. While this is a hard thing to measure in exact numbers, we looked at a few factors that we consider to be good indicators of popularity. For instance, at the time of writing, LoRa has 218 mentions on Stack Overflow, while SIGFOX only has 13. There are, however, many SIGFOX tutorials on various (reputable) online sources, and the company itself organises bootcamps around the world to promote their network and teach people the finer details. LoRa, on the other hand, has several of its supported products featured on adafruit.com, a very popular electronics store and tutorial website, and there is also a large amount of useful information offered by TheThingsNetwork.org, a crowdsourced, global LoRaWAN network.
Wrapping up: a few conclusions
And with those compelling examples, we’ve reached the end of our little comparative study! To sum things up, we wanted to line up a few pros and cons of each technology.
Let’s lead with the good news! LoRa’s main advantage, in my personal opinion, is the fact that it’s standard is pretty open, especially for members of the LoRa alliance. The fact that it’s possible to start one’s own network by setting up gateways also opens up a lot of opportunities and possible use cases, and once again, gives you greater freedom over the technology. From our perspective, the fact that LoRa has known some serious growth in the BeNeLux area (with providers and initiatives like Proximus EnCo, KPN LoRa, Amsterdam Smart City) makes it an easier choice for many of our local clients. However, its global presence isn’t as strong as that of SIGFOX, and its hardware is quite a lot more expensive
SIGFOX, then, has the benefits of noticeably cheaper hardware – which makes sense, as the company behind the technology most likely gains its profits mainly from network subscriptions – and a more established global presence at the time of writing. The downside of these more affordable prices is the fact that SIGFOX is a system pertaining entirely to one vendor, effectively locking you in once you’ve decided to use it for your IoT project. Much like the old iOS versus Android argument, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer here, but it’s certainly a factor to keep in mind.