Thinxtra is going to build a Sigfox network in Hong Kong

Murray Hankinson, managing director of Thinxtra Asia

Australia-based Sigfox network operator Thinxtra announced plans on Thursday to expand into Hong Kong and build a low-power wide-area (LPWA) network dedicated for industrial IoT applications.

Thinxtra – which currently operates LPWA networks in Australia and New Zealand – intends to build a territory-wide LPWA network for Hong Kong that will launch in early 2017. The network will be based on Sigfox’s LWPA technology, which supports industrial IoT apps that don’t require much bandwidth, such as smart meters and GPS trackers. Sigfox base stations are designed to handle 1.5 million small messages a day, and devices can send a maximum of 140 messages a day.

“We’re talking about devices that only require anywhere up to 12 bits per message,” said Murray Hankinson, managing director of Thinxtra Asia. “There are IoT apps that will require high bandwidth, like connected cars or drones, or real-time continuous monitoring – we don’t do that. But those kinds of IoT apps are only going to be just 10% of the IoT market. The other 90% are the small-message IoT devices, sensors and monitoring – that’s where we play.”

Potential LWPA IoT opportunities in Hong Kong range from smart utilities, smart lighting and smart building monitors to environmental monitoring, asset tracking and select e-health apps such as monitoring diabetes patients, Hankinson said.

Hankinson also talked up Thinxtra’s plans to work with local IT entrepreneurs to develop IoT solutions for the network. Thinxtra has already been working with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park on R&D efforts, as well as the design of devices, sensors and solutions. Any solutions developed for Thinxtra’s network could then be exported to other countries where Sigfox networks are in operation.

Hankinson said that there are 28 such countries where Sigfox is up and running or at least being deployed. Sigfox aims to cover 60 countries by the end of 2018 – Hankinson also said the company is on track to hitting that target.

By that time, the low-power WAN market is expected to be a lot more competitive as LTE operators get into the industrial IoT game via the 3GPP’s NB-IoT standard, with deployments expected to kick into gear next year. However, Hankinson said he sees NB-IoT as more complementary than competitive.

“The carriers that plan to move first on NB-IoT, they’re mainly targeting consumer-oriented apps like smart homes,” he said. “If you’re a large industrial [customer], do you really want that, or do you want a fit-for-purpose network with open systems and best-of-breed solutions? So we think we’ll be well positioned against [NB-IoT] when it starts coming in.”

Hankinson also shrugged off potential competition from LoRa, another rival low-power WAN technology. “It’s predominantly a LAN environment. Anyone can go and get a license and install a LoRA network, but there’s no platform, no internet connectivity, no country-wide deployments. It’s a good segue for something else that might come down the track, but there are a lot of restrictions on what you can do with LoRa.”

For the Hong Kong network, Thinxtra intends to utilize the 920-MHz band, which in Hong Kong is reserved for RFID and small sensors. No license is required to use the band provided networks and devices adhere to OFCA’s performance specs in terms of EIRP and modulation schemes. Hankinson said Thinxtra is talking to OFCA to ensure regulatory compliance.

Meanwhile, a key challenge in deploying any wireless network in Hong Kong’s urban jungle is site acquisition, which is notoriously difficult and expensive. Hankinson said that’s true for cellcos, but less so for a LPWA network.

“To start off, I’d point out that in Hong Kong we can get a range of 3 to 5 km with one of our base stations, so you have a lot of flexibility in terms of where you can put it – it’s very low noise, 20 times less than Wi-Fi,” Hankinson said. “And what we’ve found is that customers that are really keen to do things like, say, door access monitoring, they can set a base station on their roof to enable that, and then that’s several kilometers of coverage that other customers can use. So there’s lots of ways to do it. In the telco space, wireless deployments are a heavy capital-intensive process, but that’s not needed for the small-messaging space. We are working with partners in Hong Kong on installation and access, but it’s not your typical partners where you need access to the mobile towers.”

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