back to article We've paused Sigfox roof aerial payments, says WND-UK, but we'll make you whole after COVID

IoT biz Sigfox’s British network operator WND-UK has stopped paying people who host its network aerials on their roofs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, WND-UK has pledged to make its near 2,000 base station hosts whole once the economy stabilises. Tim Harris, managing director of WND-UK, told The Register today that …

  1. tip pc Silver badge
    WTF?

    I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

    you can get a cheap mobile from amazon for under £20 & sim cards for under £5 a month with ~ 1GB of data usage.

    why not coble up some solution that uses cheap lte components and form your own MVNE to support it?

    i get that the iot things are to be low power etc etc, but LTE is low power too & if these things are on shipping crates and effectively beacon every so often & this system picks up that beacon, triangulates the position and stores it on a DB, for 2000 to get ~91+% of the nation i'm sure a phone mast would pick up the signal too as there are certainly more than 2000 of them.

    1. PermissionToSpeakPlease

      Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

      I might not understand this fully, but I suspect that in your solution everthing that you track has to have that connectivity, so paying your £20 + (12 x £5) = £80/year for each thing you want to track.

      Whereas their system allows you them pay pennies for the trackers, but maintaining a relatively low amount of base stations to pick them up.

      There are going to be a lot more things to track than stations to build the network, so they're betting on these economics working out.

      1. tip pc Silver badge

        Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

        I hear you.

        I suspect the trackers they use will cost far more than pennies, hence why I used a £20 budget.

        Especially when they pay home owners £35 a month to host a mast and provide power.

        £840k pa for infrastructure hosting on top of staff wages and other costs of running a business suggests they need somewhere near ~£5m turnover.

        Charging a business £5 pm per device tracked would leave £40 pa per device (1st year) for mvno and profit. A business that can’t pay £5 pm for a Tracking service is likely on too much a shoe string.

    2. sw guy

      Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

      You know, there is low power and low power.

      Or, so-called low-power and really low power.

      Thus, it all depends what kind of energy source is available the thing (as in IoT).

      If juice come from a battery nobody will change during the life span of captor, you need really low power (for which Sigfox is not the only existing option, but it is one, while LTE is not then).

    3. Ben Tasker Silver badge

      Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

      In the MoD we used to use something similar to this solution for tracking aircraft spares.

      The lorry would drive past one of the antenna, and everything in the container would check itself in as arrived (at least that was the theory, sometimes the kit would be turned off, or a few bits wouldn't check in). Large/expensive items got a dedicated tag, smaller stuff may be put together into a container with it's own tag.

      Using a LTE based solution for that just wouldn't scale financially. Whilst it's peanuts compared to the cost of a main rotor head, you don't really gain anything for the extra outlay, but get a "tag" that's bulkier and much more prone to damage.

      This was a good few years ago though

      1. Nifty Bronze badge

        Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

        Must be fake news that the MoD uses this. After all Teresa may said "such systems do not yet exist".

        https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/electronic-customs-procedures-and-brexit

        1. Ben Tasker Silver badge

          Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

          Having used it, I'll tell you one thing for sure - if you want to try and use it for an electronic border, you really are on a hiding to nothing

          I said we used it, not that it necessarily worked particularly well/reliably. I certainly wouldn't trust it to enforce border policy.

          In a goods receiving context it's not too bad, because if something hasn't checked in you can get someone to go into the warehouse and physically check if there's an extra 1 in stock.

          You can't do that with a border because it's going to end up god knows where, and the smugglers aren't going to put tags on in the first place (or will tag, but will declare it's something else).

          Boris' electronic border suggestion is and was, complete bollocks, sorry. It only works where good faith is involved, and that's never the case at a border.

          1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

            Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

            It only works where good faith is involved, and that's never the case at a border.

            Most border crossings work on an assumption of good faith, in the "trust, but verify" sense. You have to assume that most paperwork is OK and objects contain what they say, but you spot-check enough of them to make life difficult for smugglers. Can't really do anything else, checking every vehicle/passenger/suitcase/parcel would be logistically impossible. You can't get 100% coverage, but it's a trade-off like most things.

            1. Ben Tasker Silver badge

              Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

              I disagree.

              At the border, if anything, there's an assumption of *bad* faith. That you don't have the resources to check everyone/everything is irrelevant, the point is you're assuming that someone is going to try and sneak stuff through and so perform spot-checks in order to raise the perceived risk for smugglers.

              The system I'm talking about doesn't assume bad faith, and isn't designed to. If your lorry driver is bent, and takes a MRH off the back of the lorry somewhere, the system won't tell you where it is, just that it didn't arrive at it's destination. It's about keeping a view on the currently available inventory, not auditing human behaviour.

              The difference is the acceptable failure rates - it's acceptable for something not to auto-check-in on the delivery, because it'll be found pretty damn quickly anyway when it's flagged as "absent".

              The EU on the other hand would probably not feel the same about stuff that "slips" through the border because it didn't have a tag on (or whatever). There's an "acceptable" failure rate at borders too (because you can't stop everything), but it's much lower than at a warehouse, and a system based on electronic tagging just isn't going to achieve that bar IMO.

      2. tip pc Silver badge

        Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

        That’s just like rfid, costs pennies and retailers etc use it on labels to track goods, stock check and theft prevention.

        Decathlon use it to great effect, place your goods in the Self service till packing area and it’s auto totalled and on the DB for ok to leave the store once paid.

        RFID is powered by the signal sent from the antenna, you’d need a lot more than 2000 of those antenna to cover 90+% of the nation.

        1. Ben Tasker Silver badge

          Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

          No, I can see why you'd jump to RFID but it wasn't that - the tags used were active rather than passive. They need to be because the lorry is only driving vaguely in the vicinity of the receptor, it's not like it's passing through a gate housing it or similar (plus RFID doesn't work so well when the tags are inside a big metal container, but the antenna isn't)

          Still, the tags were very cheap in the scheme of things, yes.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I don't get it £840k a year for something you could do over LTE

      My house burglar alarm system uses 3G cellular for the main link, but will fall back to Sigfox if the cell network is unavailable. If these folks default on their payments & the people hosting their aerials pull the plug I can see a few unhappy burglary victims looking for someone to sue...

  2. druck Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Where's the plug?

    Maybe by not telling anyone, they were hoping people wouldn't notice, and not pull the plug on the antennas.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Where's the plug?

      Definitely. No other possible explanation, given the statement that it was a "decision".

      Small claims court time by now, if they haven't contacted all the landlords and formally requested a payment holiday.

      You don't get to arbitrarily take a payment holiday without asking.

      Interest is of course already due.

      1. llaryllama

        Re: Where's the plug?

        Honestly this seems a bit mean when small businesses across the world are reeling from an unprecedented and completely unpredictable pandemic. From my point of view it seems like there was a deer in the headlights kind of thing going on for a few months which I can understand.

        I mean, technically yes, you can stomp your feet on the ground and harumph and say they are a business so it's their problem, give me my 35 quid right now you fiends. It seems like they are zoned back in and trying to find a solution that makes everyone happy long term. I'm not sure what small claims court would do at this point except slow that whole process down.

        If you're that bothered by some evil small business stealing your electricity and chimney then just unplug it, I guess *shrug*.

        1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

          Re: Where's the plug?

          From my point of view it seems like there was a deer in the headlights kind of thing going on

          Sounds like that to me. If you are relying on a significant chunk of money about to come in to stay afloat, and then that doesn't happen, it can be a challenging time. Better communication would have helped - as suggested, I think most people would accept deferring payment if told, but when the money dries up and you've heard nothing then you start to assume the worst.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Where's the plug?

      If you were expecting the money and kept an eye on your bank statements you'd probably notice if it didn't arrive. As these are powered from the premises it'll be easy to pull the plug on them.

  3. Detective Emil
    Boffin

    Yagi?

    Yagi antennas are directional — often very much so in the 868MHz band that Sigfox uses. I can't find any pictures of UK installations, but you'd definitely want something that's omnidirectional in the horizontal plane for a LPWAN base station. Maybe like those not-very-satisfactory TV antennas one finds on mobile homes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yagi?

      WND's website shows a UK news article with a rooftop antenna, which is not a Yagi and it's vertically polarized too.

      1. paulf Silver badge

        Re: Yagi?

        A bit of digging and I found this news article:

        Sigfox operator WND UK exceeds 90% coverage for secure sensor data network.

      2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: Yagi?

        it's vertically polarized too.

        That's usually better in cities with lots of buildings and narrow street corridors. Also easier to make it omnidirectional.

    2. cybergibbons

      Re: Yagi?

      What's the relevance of a yagi here?

      1. paulf Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: Yagi?

        FTA: "...WND-UK’s network consists of dual-core Intel boxes hooked up to rooftop yagi (TV-style) aerials, as Harris's predecessor Neal Forse explained to The Register back in 2017 when it first launched."

        1. cybergibbons

          Re: Yagi?

          Ah, OK. I think what was meant to be communicated is that they are installed by TV aerial installers. There are no yagis directly involved.

          1. Paul Kinsler

            Re: There are no yagis directly involved.

            .. as in (presumably) "we attach our Sigfox antenna to the pole holding up the house's existing Yagi one"

  4. JulieM Silver badge
    FAIL

    The Race to the Bottom

    So they have a technology which is based on using other people's resources (and ostensibly compensating them handsomely), and a licence-free chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum.

    Did anybody really think this was going to end any other way?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Race to the Bottom

      Plus, their operation is clearly only financially sustainable when being supported by continual investor funding and government grants. They are going out of business, they just haven't realised it yet.

      1. Ozzard

        Re: The Race to the Bottom

        Wouldn't surprise me; it's difficult to see where they're going to get £400/yr of subscriptions in this area in order to pay me for the one that's presently on the side of the house. Not impossible, but it's going to take quite a number of devices using the network.

        The installer don't seem too fussed about placement, either, so I suspect *actual* cover will be patchier than the pure base station map would suggest. Probably 90 degrees of mine is shielded by roof, and another 90 degrees by a tall nearby tree. Installers appear to be paid a fixed fee for the installation regardless of its quality, so there's an incentive to do a fast, sloppy job.

      2. SImon Hobson Silver badge

        Re: The Race to the Bottom

        only financially sustainable when being supported by continual investor funding

        That applies to many (most ? all ?) business for at least some time during start up.

        Something like this is stuck in a catch-22 situation: They need the infrastructure to provide coverage before they get users, they need users to pay for the infrastructure but won't get them without the coverage. So for at least some time, they will have a situation where the infrastructure costs more than they get in revenue - the question really is how long that "some time" is.

        IMO there is a market there (and for once, there's a genuine use case for many of the IoT things they are supporting), it's just a case of whether they can grow the user base fast enough to cover the costs.

    2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: So they have a technology which is based on using other people's resources

      BT do this with the wifi on their home routers, they keep it very quiet though.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So they have a technology which is based on using other people's resources

        "BT do this with the wifi on their home routers, they keep it very quiet though."

        BT-WiFi-with-Fon?

        Is that still a thing?

        I used to see several of their SSIDs from various places I'm familiar with (mostly routine parts of central and north-west England, no retail temples, no airports). I've never managed to make a successful connection.

  5. bpfh Silver badge

    Revenue stream (or lack of it?)

    When the company stops payments claiming Covid and investor reticence makes me think that there is no current revenue stream apart from investors throwing money at the company, and once that dries up, it’s time to sink or swim. If the basic infrastructure depends on people plugging it in and getting paid, once people pull the plug, that hits the usability of the network and starts a downward spiral to insolvency?

  6. Quentintheflorid

    "when the pandemic eases a bit". That's now, certainly in Europe/UK.

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      You sure about that? Just because Bojo the Clown decides he wants the economy open now, doesn't mean the pandemic is easing.

  7. barter

    right thing to do

    Defending their business and other people's is actually the right thing to do...… and they've committed to paying retrospectively. Can anyone tell me, with a straight face, they are dependent on WND for £35 a month? This is a complete non-story in the grand scheme of things right now.

    1. cybergibbons

      Re: right thing to do

      I mean, if WND are having cashflow problems such that they can't pay people, it's not unreasonable to assume that other people are also having cashflow problems. Many people are coming close to the line due to COVID, and there is a massive lack of respect in not asking or even notifying people that you can't pay.

      It sounds like the network is currently supported by investors rather than subscribers. At £2/device/year, they need over 250k devices subscribed to pay the rent. There's a chance that investment doesn't materialise, and they can't pay. People are paying for electricity to support these nodes - by the time 6 months is up, that could be £30 in bills.

    2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Re: right thing to do

      I'm not that poor but many people on government welfare or cheap jobs are. You might get your housing cost paid or most of it, but then there's heating in a cold climate and there's food to buy and clothes when they wear out. You don't really get what you need. And on the other hand, our welfare system may already know that you're getting that £35 so they subtract most or all of it from what the state pays you. So even on the government's terms you're short.

      And I just wrote - hypothetically - if you don't get the money now, how confident should you really be that you will be paid later?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: right thing to do

      "This is a complete non-story in the grand scheme of things right now."

      Maybe. But it was enough of a story for you to specifically sign up to comment on this story.

      Anyway, thanks for the heads up.

      "Can anyone tell me, with a straight face, they are dependent on WND for £35 a month? "

      You wouldn't miss £35 a month? OK, can you post it to my mate Mrs Trellis of 419 Mornington Crescent, London, W12 8QT instead. You'll get it back once the Garden Bridge is built.

      barter

      https://forums.theregister.com/user/96305/

      1 post • joined 10 Jul 2020

  8. Quentintheflorid
    Thumb Down

    "when the pandemic eases a bit". That's now, certainly in Europe/UK.

    I know it's been and is tough on everyone, but coronavirus/covid/pandemic/current difficult situation/etc, etc. excuses are sometimes being used as the modern day equivalent of, "The cheque's in the post."

  9. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    A base station needs two connections, one to receive from the Things and the back-haul. Yagis are directional so it looks as if these are the back-haul. That means they must have two aerials up there. As per the original article this installation avoided planning permission because a building can have up to two aerials but what happens if the building already has one aerial up there? Are they breaking planning rules in such cases?

  10. EssexGuy

    The install uses an omnidirectional dipole, not a TV yagi antenna:

    https://static.wixstatic.com/media/a8b478_2289b7e74ca74457aaf3bf7f3f415852~mv2_d_1200_1600_s_2.jpg/v1/fill/w_602,h_803,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/Sigfox%20Antenna.webp

  11. Steve Goodey
    WTF?

    "Harris was frank: “With hindsight, was it the right thing – should we have put a message out and said ‘Really sorry guys, we’ve got to delay payment’? Maybe, perhaps. Maybe we could have done something like that."

    You think?

  12. Ozzard
    Go

    At the moment, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt

    I have one of the units on my chimney (and, yes, it's an omni dipole). It eats a few tens of watts, and I'll keep it running for quite a few months yet rather than risk missing a payment. Neat little thing, installed in around an hour.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: At the moment, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt

      10W would be 90kWh per year, so they are costing you around £13 to £130 a year in electricity (10-100W)

      A margin of 66% isn't too bad, however a company that thinks it's fine to unilaterally decline to pay their rent is very high risk.

    2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Re: At the moment, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt

      Hypothetically, in a situation like that, if the company folded then you'd never get the payment you're waiting for. I have s vague ides that you'd be something called an "unsecured creditor" and most likely to get a fraction of your due, or zero.

      Hypothetically. If that happened.

      1. Ozzard

        Re: At the moment, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt

        Yup. One of the better ways of the company folding is for it to lose its revenue because its network goes offline due to pesky suppliers turning off their supply :-). I've had a few hundred quid from them so far; I don't mind risking a few tens to reduce the chance of that bankruptcy. But let's see how the other suppliers behave.

  13. Shadow Systems Silver badge
    Joke

    How's this...

    Take a zombie. Stick it in a wire cage enclosed hamster style wheel. Hang a brain just out of the zombies reach so it endlessly trundles along trying to snag the snack. Connect the wheel to a power generator so it generates electricity. Connect an RX/TX unit atop a pole & attach the pole someplace suitably high for decent coverage. Run power to the antenna & to the computer unit required to do all the fiddly bits. Presto, you've got a self powered, eternally powered, self sustaining way to form a node in a WAN.

    That's one node. Repeat a few zillion times across the region to give total coverage as needed. Say one set on each street corner, back alley, & in every flower box around town.

    You could even disguise them as something pretty & decorative like a public bill posting kiosk, or a public notice billboard for official notices about unimportant stuff, or as coffee/newspaper stands. Whatever is appropriate for the area.

    Would that work? =-)p

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: How's this...

      Unfortunately not. You need a steady supply of brains as otherwise the zombies starve. Clearly, from the guy who only just realized that you shouldn't just stop paying your creditors without warning, brains aren't something they have in great supply.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: How's this...

        Instead of brains, have unicorns, and instead of zombies, use brexit voters.

      2. SuperGeek

        Re: How's this...

        Unfortunately, Walking Dead style zombies don't exist, so we just use Apple zombies instead! Dangle a few fake new iPhones on a string, job done, and no sci-fi needed! There's hundreds of thousands of them out there too!

  14. zb42

    not just competing with cellular

    They are competing with ORBCOMM who have fifty low-orbit satellites and are well established

    ORBCOMM have near worldwide coverage, though client devices that are down in a valley may only have a connection sometimes when a satellite is overhead.

    I expect this lot is capable of carrying a bit more data than ORBCOMMs typical 6 to 30 byte messages.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmmmmm

    "I wrote to WND asking why I hadn't received the payment I was expecting in June - no response. I have e-mailed them again today to say that if I don't get the money I'm owed or at least hear from them with an update on what's going on I will ask my tenants to unplug the aerials on 1st July. I'm not letting them use my electricity and chimney if they don't keep to their part of the deal. I'll let you know what happens."

    Sounds like they are using the tenants electricity, but the landlord is getting the payment.

    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Re: Hmmmmm

      If landlord says "my electricity" then presumably landlord is the electric account holder, and either taking money for it in rent, or billing for it separately.

      Putting "rent includes electricity" into Google (in UK) shows a trend of student accommodation provided like this: possibly a room with shared electricity and gas for the house, also shared kitchen, bathroom? Or is that old fashioned?

      It's still possible that a landlord is "over charging" for electricity although it is "included" in the rent, but that's on their conscience. There probably isn't a meter to charge each room individually anyway.

  16. Duffy Moon

    This reminds me of a story my dad told me about a cable (presumably for radio) which was attached to his house in the '60s. The cable company used to pay him a small fee for the use of his house. When they stopped paying, he got a ladder and some wire cutters out...

  17. m0th3r

    Orbcomm needs more power and bigger antennas... and WND-UK a revenue stream

    I have worked with Orbcomm, their devices are power-hungry, the data is expensive, and low capacity, plus high latency. The terrestrial IoT networks are a better solution for most things, unless you need true global coverage (like the blue-water free-floating ocean buoys I worked on...).

    What worries me most is that just to cover the "rent" they pay, they need about 200,000 monthly paying devices (at average IoT pricing publicly available), which I find hard to see right now.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Disappointing

    I'm always ready to support start ups and new tech; I have WND equipment installed on several properties.

    I know this is a tough time for most people, but the way they've done this has been nothing short of despicable. It's 6 months without payment for some of my properties, and I've STILL not had official communication from WND.

    I chased the last missing payment and was told it would be back paid when the next quarter is due, that's next week and when I emailed this week to confirm it would be happening they told me payment's are still on hold until the NEXT quarter.

    Due to the lack of pro-active communication, I'm running out of patience with this company. Would any equipment hosts be interested in doing a Facebook group to communicate within?

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