IoT’s big impact
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Neal Forse, CEO and co-founder of WND UK

Neal Forse, CEO and co-founder of WND UK, talks to Sam Fenwick about his company’s Sigfox network roll-out and how an IoT project has resulted in big savings for a housing association

Like any good manager, Neil Forse, the CEO and co-founder of Wireless Network Developments (UK) [WND UK], is well aware of the factors that limit the pace of his company’s and its industry’s expansion. The limiting and most challenging step when it comes to WND UK’s Sigfox network roll-out is going from “an agreement in principle to the signing off of the paperwork to get the hardware installed. Invariably, lawyers do take their time, it’s very frustrating.” He adds while it’s possible to build three Sigfox base stations per engineer per day, the legal paperwork per site can’t be signed off in the same timescale.

“When you’re building a network, everyone you’re collaborating with needs to be moving forward with the same sense of urgency, otherwise you’ll move as slowly as the slowest part of that collaboration,” he says.

While paperwork may be a pain, Forse and his colleagues’ efforts have resulted in some impressive gains. “We have at least half a dozen real-world deployments, but the one delivering the most positive impact is the deal with Genesis, a housing association with a portfolio of 37,000 properties.” Sigfox is being used by one of its customers, LeakSafe, to provide Genesis and its insurer with IoT-enabled water leak detection as a service, and this arrangement has cut Genesis’s insurance premiums by 18 per cent, resulting in a network roll-out with “negative cost”.

Part of the reason for this remarkable figure is the pervasive and destructive power of water ingress when it comes to damaging property. It can be hugely expensive, forcing buildings to be written off in the worst cases.

“Everyone wins – the insurance companies get to risk-mitigate their insurance policies through the data analytics, the housing association gets lower-cost insurance and LeakSafe gets revenue from leak detection as a service,” Forse says, adding that tens of thousands of devices have already been installed.

However, he says this is just the first step when it comes to IoT for housing associations. “The next round will be monitoring the buildings beyond leak detection – for noise, humidity, fire and smoke and the use of fire extinguishers. We’re also putting trackers into fire blankets, so we know they are located where they should be and when they are moved or shaken.” He adds this project highlights Sigfox’s ability to provide deep in-building coverage, and the only commercial challenge was obtaining “access to every nook and cranny of every building. You need the permission of the residents, of the ground owner, you need to sign off access – there are so many commercial moving pieces.”

To Forse, this is a hurdle for the IoT industry as a whole. “There isn’t a single IoT vendor that can deliver a [full solution for a] vertical. The only way for IoT to actually succeed is through real, truly transparent collaboration. Unless we address the archaic view of some of the large multinationals about grassroots collaboration then the IoT is going to be stalled. [Everyone] needs to collaborate and not try and own the industry. There’s enough money on the table for everyone if we all play nicely together.”

What advice does he have for anyone looking to deploy IoT? “You need to find your return on investment (ROI). There are many hobbyist networks in the UK for LPWAN and many siloed networks built purely to [provide] proof of concept, but when you’re embarking on any journey in IoT, you need to build the proof of value and define your ROI” – as opposed to just determining whether it works technically. He adds that, by using Sigfox and thus not having to shoulder the cost of base stations, once you have a feel for the potential ROI you may find it is high enough to avoid having to further optimise your system solution costs, and that the saved effort can be put to better use accelerating your time to market. Conversely, “if the initial margin in your model isn’t robust, then you really are at a disadvantage from the outset”.

Regarding the role that WND UK can play in helping new projects get off the ground, Forse explains that it can provide, install and maintain Sigfox gateways for free as well as providing free connectivity “while those embryonic beginnings are being investigated”. As for projects in the commercial phase, the company’s “pricing structure is completely transparent, we don’t have one pricing structure for one customer and a different pricing structure for another – we advertise our prices… you get a higher discount the more [connectivity] you buy”.

For those readers who may be wondering about testability given Brian Back’s comments on this in our last issue, Forse says even its ‘one message per day per device’ package includes a second daily heartbeat message, so end-users know whether their sensors are functioning correctly; and with packages catering to multiple messages per day, additional daily messages can be made to act as heartbeats to increase the temporal resolution further if required.

One recent application of Sigfox is Securitas Verisure Direct’s use of it in its alarm systems, as a means of allowing alarm signals to get through even if someone is trying to jam them – or, better still, to recognise jamming as a sign that a burglary attempt is about to take place.

Forse says the company performed “very strict due diligence in the LPWAN industry for security [and] robustness of LPWAN infrastructure… and they take security very seriously, it’s their core business”. He explains that Sigfox is inherently hard to jam because of its UNB (ultra-narrowband) protocol. “If you have a white Gaussian noise generator at 868[MHz], Sigfox can invariably punch through that noise floor quite readily.”

He adds that Securitas Verisure Direct “uses Sigfox for mission-critical applications and it provides an SLA to its customers on the service it provides, it’s not best effort”.

Now we have strayed into the mission-critical realm, Forse adds that his company “is on the cusp” of starting a project with a “very well-established UK university for the integration of the return path of a [Sigfox] base station through a Quality of Service mechanism governed by the 3GPP 5G standard”. This would enable organisations to “better manage their latency, delivery throughput and resiliency”. This is opposed to the current situation whereby the connection between the gateway and the cloud is achieved through “whatever open internet means are available”, through a VPN tunnel.

WND UK is working with the same university to virtualise the Sigfox back end. This will allow customers to use a fully virtualised instance of the full system solution stack, cutting the ties to the Sigfox private cloud. Part of the motivation is to allow the emergency services to use Sigfox, and while it works on unlicensed spectrum in the 868MHz band, Forse notes that it does track packet loss.

How does Forse see Sigfox fitting into the IoT market once NB-IoT and LTE-M have made their mark? “The benefit is they are lower-latency, high-throughput, but you get that at the expense of device cost and battery [life]. So [Sigfox] will always be the thinnest, lowest slice of the IoT pyramid: the highest volume, with the lowest power and the lowest cost. It will be very complementary to the whole myriad of connectivity standards. No one connectivity standard is going to meet the needs of all use-cases.”

He cites Telefonica’s support for Sigfox and its intention to use it alongside its plans for LTE-M and NB-IoT. Forse also highlights GCT Semiconductor’s decision to create a single chip, the GDM7243I, with LTE-M, NB-IoT and Sigfox capabilities. “Silicon vendors follow the money, they don’t invest the tens of millions that are needed to build a piece of silicon by accident,” he says.

I ask if there is a tension between Sigfox’s focus on low cost and high volume and the need to support users.

“The revenue models [with Sigfox] are still comparable to anyone providing a solution in the connectivity space that requires a service, SLA, resiliency and responsiveness to customer needs and queries,” Forse explains. He adds that WND UK has a network operations centre in the UK, monitors performance on a 24/7 basis and has a customer service portal that allows its customers to log any issues, which are also dealt with on a 24/7 basis. This is aided by the fact that WND has subsidiaries in other countries (including all those in Latin America), which means that not all of its employees are based in the same time zone.

With there being so much hype around IoT and 5G , it is reassuring to see an application in which LPWAN is delivering real value to end-users. Given the legal hurdles that Forse has highlighted, it will be interesting to see how long these remain an issue for our industry, given the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

CV – Neal Forse
Forse has more than 20 years’ experience in data networking and video processing within the broadcast and semiconductor sectors, both in engineering and business management. He started his career as a research engineer at

Sony developing the world’s first digital TV service over satellite, then moved on to run the software operations for Ericsson Media.

Before joining WND UK, Forse nurtured multiple start-up businesses within Intel, focusing on next-generation video compression technologies, network access architectures and artificial intelligence for Smart City and industrial IoT applications.

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