Be There in a ZiFi: How ZiFiSense is Revolutionizing Package Tracking

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By Tancred Taylor | 3Q 2021 | IN-6235

This insight focuses on ZiFiSense’s ZETags for smart logistics.

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ZETA Alliance: Expansion Pack


On the 1st of February 2021, Cambridge-founded Chinese IoT company ZiFiSense announced its expansion into Europe. The first planned target for this expansion is France, where ZiFiSense set up an exclusive national distribution deal with IoT integrator Sensing Labs and from which the company plans to develop its regional footprint. Simultaneously, the company set up a chapter of the ZETA Alliance—the ecosystem promoting the ZETA LPWA protocol—in Europe, the fourth to be established after the China, Japan, and Southeast Asia chapters. ZiFiSense and the ZETA protocol have little recognition so far in Europe and North America, as is to be expected given the company’s very APAC-centric strategy thus far. However, taking a step back, it is worth looking deeper at this company that brings with it, from China and Japan in particular, a string of impressive accolades and which has significant disruptive potential in the smart logistics and asset tracking industries.

ZiFiSense is the company behind the ZETA LPWA protocol, a long-range communication protocol using M-FSK (Multiple Frequency-Shift Keying) modulation in sub-GHz (or 2.4GHz) spectrum bands, using multiple ultra-narrowband channels to achieve very low power transmissions of 18 byte data packets with a high penetration (around -140db). The protocol is able to run on some existing 2-FSK chips but achieves best performance when running on proprietary system on a chip (SoCs) (supporting 4-FSK, 8-FSK, and 246-FSK modulation). Much of the magic however is on the gateway, with a highly sensitive receiver enabling very long range transmissions (between 2-10km, depending on the environment and the receiver sensitivity). Using this protocol, ZiFiSense has developed a range of proprietary hardware and an IoT platform for use-cases targeting smart buildings, smart industry, and smart logistics.

This article focuses on ZiFiSense’s ZETags for smart logistics—a range of 4 tags offered by the company with varying form factor and battery capabilities to enable the tracking of various types of goods. This is the first product that ZiFiSense is bringing to Europe, for two main reasons: the complexity of the European logistics landscape and interest in tracking in-transit and LTL goods on one hand, and the perceived superiority of their ZETag trackers compared to existing technologies on the other. The goal of ZiFiSense is to push asset tracking to a lower power and lower cost to enable the tracking of individual goods and parcels.

Most interesting in this respect is the disposable ZETag: a small form factor smart label (65x52x3mm) using a disposable paper battery with a lifespan of 6 months to 1 year when transmitting every 30 minutes, and with a range of up to 3km (based on receiver sensitivity). The cost to manufacture this tag currently stands at just over US$1, with an anticipated future at-volume manufacturing cost of only US$0.30—around the cost of passive RFID tags. The technology is not just another science experiment: ZiFiSense has a number of high-volume real-life use-cases, with one example being the deployment of over 500,000 disposable ZETags with China Post and telecom China Tower to track high-value B2C parcels and packages (such as government documents, passports, etc.).

Smart Label Growth


Smart labels are the next boundary for asset tracking in the IoT. Several projects are currently in trials or being deployed at smaller or larger volumes. Wiliot aims to enable mass item-level tracking with printable Bluetooth tags, with several interesting use-cases for instance in the pharmaceutical industry. The partnership between Bayer and various technology players (Sony, ARM, Vodafone/AT&T) aims again to track individual parcels using cellular technologies (LTE-M/NB-IoT) and provide once-daily status reports alongside events-based reports (e.g., parcel opening, excessive shock/temperature); the technology started to be commercialized and deployed in real-life use-cases earlier this year. Several tracking label projects using long range (LoRa) are also underway, though mostly in PoC stages at the moment.

The ZETag solution has several advantages. First, it offers lower power consumption than cellular and LoRa (enabling a smaller paper battery to be used). Second, it offers a high penetration capability (-140db), such that goods can be tracked while in metal containers or underneath other goods. Third, goods are able to be tracked at high speed (gateways receive messages from devices moving at 120kph, with a packet loss rate of only 5%). Fourth, the tags can report over long distances at intervals of every 30 minutes, enabling tracking to be more granular/real-time. Fifth, the cost of the solution is very low. Sixth, and most importantly, the technology already has successful real-life deployments dating back a few years. Indeed, the kinds of mass-scale deployments ZiFiSense has seen (500,000 on the smart label with one customer, 1 million tags on wooden pallets with another) exceeds anything currently seen in Europe or North America.

This is an important point, in particular when considering how other low-power wide-area (LPWA) technologies have approached the market. A large number of these technologies focus around building out the network capabilities, but with less focus on the commercial aspects: namely the use-cases and the ecosystem. For instance, cellular IoT technologies LTE-M and NB-IoT were written into 3GPP Release 13 in 2016, and the ecosystem took a while to develop around them. By contrast, ZETA was built with specific use-cases in mind, and the initial steps to deploy the technology revolve around building out the ecosystem of promoters and adopters through the ZETA Alliance—which already had 118 companies in the Japan chapter as of June 2021, and 142 in China as of April 2021.

There are, of course, tradeoffs that come from the technology. As a proprietary LPWA, the network needs to be built from the ground up; ZiFiSense currently has coverage in Guangxi province in China and plans for coverage on the East coast of China in 2021-2022, but this consists largely of gateways being deployed at critical points along routes to allow check-in/check-out of tags—rather than full real-time coverage. This is not by definition a downside, as a large number of use-cases in asset tracking require this kind of occasional status update rather than always-on connection. In cases where more real-time visibility is required, or where a higher precision of positioning is required, ZiFiSense has deployed city-wide or campus-wide coverage to facilitate this, with the low-cost private deployment potential an additional advantage. Furthermore, it is important to note that NTT Docomo is an investor in the company, and that telecommunication tower owner China Tower has deployed ZETA gateways on its existing cellular infrastructure—showing that proprietary and cellular IoT is not an either/or choice.

Another tradeoff is the lack of native geolocation on the tag: geolocation is provided at the gateway level (which may be a fixed gateway mounted along motorways or within warehouses or other facilities, or a mobile gateway mounted inside a truck or other vehicle). This again means that precision in many cases may be rough depending on how the solution is deployed. Some use-cases with ZETA appear to support some kind of RSSI positioning capabilities, but it will be interesting to see whether future developments in the technology support higher levels of precision at the tag level, or whether this will continue to be provided by the (increasingly dense) network of gateways.

A final tradeoff worth noting is that ZiFiSense’s proprietary ZETags do not support storage and retransmission of data when the tags are out of signal range—which can be an issue when tags rely on a sparse network of gateways for transmission. While customers may build their own solutions supporting storage capabilities with ZiFiSense’s standard modules, the lack of on-device storage means that data may sometimes be lost in transit, depending on the deployment mode and the use-case.

To See Paris and Die: Avoiding Paris Syndrome


ZiFiSense’s low-cost, low-power smart labels are not an example of a congested LPWA market. Instead, the technology brings real differentiators, alternative deployment modes, and disruptive capabilities to the asset tracking and smart label markets. China has remained and will continue to remain ZiFiSense’s principal market because of its size and growth in IoT opportunities; its expansion into France, however, will be important to follow at a time when companies are beginning to see the value of IoT, and where existing solutions for granular tracking of goods still frequently come at a high cost. Platforms for providing insights into shipping lane and network performance are increasingly seeing uptake and are increasingly looking to ingest data at a more granular level. In a fragmented European logistics market, the ability to track goods at a low cost and throughout an entire journey can add significant value. ZiFiSense will need to take a careful approach to navigating the very different market dynamics in Europe as they look to bring to market different tracking use-cases leveraging different ZETag form factors.

One interesting aspect to examine will be how it chooses to compete against existing proprietary LPWA vendors. While ZiFiSense’s technology may enable use-cases that are not currently available from its main proprietary competitors (Sigfox, LoRa), three considerations give pause and will need consideration by ZiFiSense. First, the ecosystems surrounding Sigfox and LoRa (as well as the cellular LPWA side) are highly developed in Europe in particular, with very large number of companies offering various low-cost devices based on these. The more developed ecosystems are also the result of fairly wide (and widening) network deployments, offering broader coverage in a large and fragmented space. Second, devices like ZiFiSense’s are under development in these ecosystems; Sigfox’s promise of a US$1 tracker have not yielded a broadly-used tracking device, as of yet, but it is certain that these types of devices will be introduced in the coming years. How much penetration ZiFiSense has achieved by the time these devices are broadly used will to a great extent dictate how much it can compete against the currently larger ecosystems. Third, much of the focus currently for supply chain tracking has shifted to not only understanding the location, but also the condition of assets. How ZiFiSense develops its product line and seeks to understand the different business requirements of different industries will impact on the long-term success of its product.

Another lesson is for network operators and technology providers in the IoT space, namely that customers are less concerned with the type of technology used, and more interested in the outcome. As shown by China Tower, cellular technologies are not working but competing with proprietary LPWAN—and leveraging both can mean that customers are able to achieve their individual outcomes more comprehensively without needing to balance trade-offs. It is worth watching how telecoms adapt to this over the coming years, and how widespread proprietary LPWA networks operated by traditional cellular carriers become.



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