Activity spikes on San Francisco’s Internet of Things network

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A little more than a year after launch, San Francisco’s Internet of Things (IoT) network has taken off, with a handful of departments planning pilot projects and dozens of startups and nonprofits jumping in.

San Francisco implemented the project through a private-public partnership with the IoT network provider Sigfox in October 2015. And since then, the French company — which has deployed similar systems in Europe — reports the city has completed its first IoT pilot with more on the way. 

Sigfox Sales Director Ramzi Al-Harayeri said San Francisco’s IoT network has seen an exceptional amount of interest and activity. He credited it to the city’s stature as a national tech hub and to its technology strategy, which includes exploration of advanced  infrastructure. 

“We have multiple projects kicking right now with them and are investigating several pilots and proof of concept initiatives,” Al-Harayeri said. “The reception and acceptance of our network has been really, really exciting and we’re looking forward to taking a lot of these pilots and proof of concepts into the real production and launch with the city.”

From the network’s inception, when Sigfox and the city hosted an IoT hackathon to jumpstart use, the company has continued to work with city departments to brainstorm potential IoT upgrades and additions to city services. Out of these discussions, Al-Harayeri said that the initial use cases to pop up involved the IoT equipped street lighting, traffic signage and sewage monitoring. 

The sewage monitoring is San Francisco’s first successful application of the technology. 

Roughly a year ago, the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (PUD) began investigating how it might expand sewage monitoring. The commission wanted greater information on speed and flow levels, as well as saltwater intrusion. Saltwater is harmful to the many organisms that break down sewage in treatment plants. 

Unfortunately, the current sensors were limited. The devices ran over a traditional cellular network and had two major handicaps: They could only send data once each day, and the battery pack for the devices lasted just three months — sending a two-man team scurrying from one manhole to the next with replacements. This put constraints on how many devices could be installed and how much data could be analyzed.

Working with the remote-monitoring company Ayyeka, a Sigfox partner, the PUD has installed low powered devices with sensors that retrieve all of the data and relay it multiple times per day, nearly in real time.

“What’s unique about the Ayyeka partnership is being able to provide a very, very heavy duty industrial spec that can tolerate the tough environment that these devices go into,” Al-Harayeri said. “It goes inside the manhole in a very tough environment where there is humidity, saltwater and weather elements that can erode any sensor or any device very quickly — never mind cockroaches and other bugs.”

Francois Oudot, an engineer from Sigfox who has worked closely with the PUD, said that now more devices can be deployed at a much cheaper cost, because Sigfox modules cost under $2 and can last for up to 15 years. 

“They can deploy a bunch more devices and change the battery far less often,” Oudot said.”That allows them to go into a whole different scale in terms of deployment of sensors.”

In 2017, San Francisco officials — who weren’t immediately available for comment — will launch more pilots alongside a host of startups and nonprofits. Al-Harayeri said Sigfox has about 10 engagements right now with different organizations that are connected to their network. One of these is a civic tech project between Microsoft and a nonprofit called Open Channel to equip elderly and disable residents with devices that alert first responders of their location during emergencies — since cell networks are often the first to go down. Others uses include uses for parking facilities, to detect cars, and garbage bins, to detect trash levels for pickup. 

“Other companies and startups that we are engaged with are developing protocols, programs and application right now based on our network.” Al-Harayeri said.

Sigfox plans to announce in the first quarter of 2017 that it offers coverage to the entire Bay Area. Nationally, the company commercial network covers 20 percent of the US population, and it anticipated covering 40 percent by end of 2017. Oudot said hope are to double this again by the end of 2018 to cover 80 percent of the US. If these statistics weren’t enough, globally Sigfox reports that its network can be found in 29 countries and will be in 60 by 2018 with millions of devices already connected worldwide. 

Al-Harayeri compared to the momentum to the early days of the cellular networks, when provider were racing to set up cell towers and link infrastructure. 

“It’s all about the deployment,” he said. “It’s about how fast you can cover the entire population of the United States and how fast you can hit the ground running.”

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