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

Nationwide network operator gets into tizzy with chimney owners

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 his firm had asked the people hosting its Sigfox antennas on their chimneys to “wait until we get through the pandemic” before asking for their £35/month.

Some alleged, to The Register and on Facebook, that the company had stopped paying them without notice.

“If they 100 per cent cannot support us and need the money now, we will pay them,” said Harris. “We’ll do a 50-50 so we don’t take it off the roof; if they can hang on but they don’t want the equipment turned on and want to make a gesture until they get paid, that’s fine as well.”

WND-UK runs Sigfox’s UK radio network. Sigfox is an Internet of Things connectivity tech that runs over unlicensed radio spectrum.

Intended for connectivity use cases requiring bytes of data sent at long intervals (say, tracking shipping containers or livestock) rather than kilobytes or megabytes as would be better supported by GSM or LTE mobile phone tech, 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.

Some of WND-UK’s aerial hosts had told us that the company had stopped paying them over the past few months, seemingly with little explanation as to why. One message highlighted, posted on Facebook by an irate aerial host, said:

Others commenting on WND-UK’s Facebook page said they had heard from the firm and had been promised to be paid once the pandemic had eased a bit, something its MD repeated to El Reg today.

Harris told us: “Who knew COVID was coming? Yeah, it has affected us. We’re in no danger of closing, we haven't laid anybody off, we’re keeping the team together and we’re fully intending to pay anyone who’s had missed payments. All we’re asking for is support.”

He mentioned that a funding round from WND-UK’s investors was paused as the entire world’s economy slammed the brakes on back in March when the true scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear. That funding round included a government grant that matches WND-UK’s funding on a 50-50 basis, he said, something Harris was optimistic would come through as planned once the UK business and investment world regains its confidence – allowing WND-UK to clear its debts to its aerial hosts.

“We’re delaying it and as soon as the tap is back on we’ll be spreading the payment over the rest of the period,” he repeated.

When we asked what WND-UK had told its aerial hosts about suspending payments, 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. We’re trying to get through [the pandemic] at the moment and that was the decision we took.”

Rather than paying the large sums demanded by traditional mobile network mast operators for integration onto their base station sites, WND-UK pays owners of chimneys £35 a month (or £105 a quarter) to strap an aerial and a signal processing box to it, with power being supplied from the host building.

The company now boasts 1,960 Sigfox aerial sites around the country and claims to have 91 per cent coverage of the nation’s population. ®

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