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A nationwide IoT network for Malaysia: A peek into the tech

Last month, I’d written about how it’s a milestone kind of period for connectivity. With Malaysia’s new focus on Industry 4.0, and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies playing a huge role in enabling it, our attention on connectivity has had to fine tune to look at more than just Minister Gobind coming down hard on our incumbent fixed broadband player, Telekom Malaysia.

Mobile broadband has done a commendable job of filling in the gaps left by fixed broadband, especially in areas where a fibre build out does not make viable economic sense.

At least four mobile telcos in Malaysia jostle for the top spot in terms of network coverage of the population – the wider the network coverage of a mobile service, the more locations its mobile subscribers can remain connected to voice and data.

Now, all of these requires huge investments to build the base stations that propagate this network signal ‘coverage’. And it’s an endeavour that is usually done in phases spanning years. Till today, these investments are still going on, although it is more towards upgrading the technologies of these base stations from one generation of cellular mobile communications to the next generation.

So, when a connectivity technology comes along to Malaysia and announces it has over 80-percent network coverage, one tends to sit up and ask, “When did all the building start?”

Sigfox

Sigfox, is the name of the French company that deploys this proprietary communications technology. A quick check with Wikipedia unveils that Sigfox is a low-bandwidth communications technology, unlike GSM technology which our mobile phones support and which is high-bandwidth.

Sigfox uses Industrial, Scientific and Medical ISM radio band, which is 868MHz in Europe and 902MHz in the US, “which supports up to 140 uplink messages a day, each message carrying a payload of 12 octets at a data rate of up to 100 bytes per second.”

An octet translates to eight bytes, so 12 octets is a total of 96 bytes, which you may think is hardly enough to carry a voice call much less a video call.

What Sigfox is extremely good at however, is transmitting low bandwith data like temperature or GPS data, and other small payloads of information, which when combined together can give a pretty good description about the status of an asset. It has potential to transmit data bi-directionally as well with a symmetric link, provided its network coverage is dense enough.

An asymmetric link, already makes the technology incredibly adept and efficient at tracking and monitoring, especially non-powered assets like people, livestock, the environment, and so on. It requires very low power to do this, and is still able to pass freely through solid objects, according to Wikipedia.

At a glance, this is Sigfox’s advantage over 4G and 5G, when it comes to tracking and monitoring.

As of May 2017, our national investment engine, Khazanah Nasional also has a minority stake in Sigfox.

But…

Sigfox isn’t the only player in the LPWAN or low-powered wide area network space. While there is a main competitor in LoRa or Long Range technology that uses unlicensed spectrum below 1GHz, there are other players entering the arena, for example Narrowband IoT and LTE-M.

There is no mention of other LPWAN players in Malaysia; Sigfox appears to be a more aggressive marketer in this space, but there is another reason for the relative low visibility of other LPWAN technologies in Malaysia – LoRA is based on open standards, and with over 500 member companies, developing standards by committee is a longer process.

In Malaysia, Sigfox’s IoT technology works via Xperanti, its first licensed nationwide IoT network and solutions provider.

Business is booming for Xperanti which signed on Malaysia Airports earlier this year as a customer, and they are working on ten other projects and counting.

As of October 2018, the Sigfox IoT network has covered a total of 4.2 million sqm in a total of 50 countries and is on track to reach 60 countries by the end of 2018.

The company also plans to connect up to 6 million objects by the end of the year, with the long-term ambition of positioning itself as a key B2B data provider.

Within Malaysia itself, Xperanti aims to achieve 95-percent population coverage, by next year.

 




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