The Industrial Internet is getting a new lane. The San Francisco Bay Area will soon have a wireless network dedicated to machine to machine (M2M) communications.

The network, being set up by French startup Sigfox, will be used exclusively by the sensor-fitted machines to communicate with each other. Compared to traditional cellular networks, it will be slower but will support several more devices over a larger area and will be very energy efficient.

San Francisco will be the first US city to deploy this wireless architecture. Globally, several other countries such as the U.K., France, Spain, and Russia are building gadgets-only networks.

Sigfox, which recently raised €15 million ($21 million), plans to roll out this low-throughput network in 60 countries within the next five years. BT and several other telecom companies are working on the same protocol to connect industrial machines. SNS Research's latest report indicates that global spending on wireless M2M technology is expected to reach nearly $200 billion by the end of 2014.

Cellular doesn't fit machines
Traditional cellular networks are built to support mobile phones and tablets used by people who make calls; check mails and download videos almost all the time. But industrial machines, like power plants or shipping containers, communicate differently. They might transmit just a small amount of data, like a smoke alert or maintenance schedule. Also, machines communicate only when required and might not need to connect with other machines for hours, and sometimes days. Even the old 2G networks seem too power-hungry and expensive for these kinds of industrial applications.

The new connectivity fabric
The wireless architecture uses ultra-narrowband modulation techniques to support millions of devices with fewer network transmitters. Devices connected to this architecture can operate at very low power but will be able to transmit at only 100 bits per second, about 1,000 times slower than a traditional cellular network. It uses the unlicensed frequency band, commonly used for baby monitors and cordless phones (915 MHz in the US and 868 MHz in Europe). This narrow band technology, according to Sigfox, offers flexibility in terms of antenna design of equipment. The M2M networks promise:

  • Transmission of tiny amounts of data
  • Connections for several more devices over a larger area
  • Low-speed connectivity
  • Energy-efficient architecture
  • Lower cost of connectivity

It’s a race
Several companies are working on similar protocols and are hoping to join the race in the next two years. SIGFOX networks are already deployed in France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Spain. British telecom company Arqiva is setting up a network for gadgets in the U.K.’s 10 largest cities next year and plans to go national later.

Several large wireless companies are also eyeing the opportunity to connect devices. BT, for one, began testing devices-only networks based on white spaces -- gaps between frequency bands in the radio spectrum. Called NeulNET, BT’s system promises better coverage, battery life, and lower cost than existing solutions. Smaller companies, including TrueNet and M2M SpectrumNet, are also working on rolling out exclusive M2M networks.

It might be too early to predict if these low-energy and low throughput networks can replace traditional cellular networks, but they are clearly a big threat to short range connectivity technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. So, get ready for the machines-only networks buzzing in the Industrial Internet corridor.

About the author

GE Digital

Driving Digital Transformation

GE Digital connects streams of machine data to powerful analytics and people, providing industrial companies with valuable insights to manage assets and operations more efficiently. World-class talent and software capabilities help drive digital industrial transformation for big gains in productivity, availability and longevity. We do this by leveraging Predix, our cloud-based operating system, purpose built for the unique needs of industry.