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Weightless weighs in

Date: 19th November 2013
Topic: Monthly Features
Tags: Weightless, Neul, ETSI, Weightless SIG, Internet of Things, Whitespace

Alun Lewis looks at developments at the Weightless SIG, as it builds the Internet of Things from the bottom up – as well as from the top down

Weightless.jpgBeyond all the hype, the vision of the Internet of Things (IoT) is starting to become reality. While many of the world’s mobile operators - as well as major players in the software and systems integration space - are currently nailing their colours firmly to the M2M mast as a way of boosting sluggish earnings, it would be a serious mistake to concentrate solely on cellular-based connectivity in this area. A number of companies and communities are instead looking at the potential of White Space radio where free chunks of spectrum sit around those frequencies used for TV transmission. Because of the potential for interference, both with TV channels as well as other devices such as hearing aids, most White Space solutions are using some versions of cognitive radio and/or database cloud models to let devices select the optimum frequencies for their areas in real time.

As one industry expert recently commented: “We’ve spent the last twenty years or so effectively strip-mining the radio spectrum – with White Space we’ve now moved onto ‘spectrum fracking’ to get the maximum value from limited resources…”

While White Space trials were carried out in the UK back in 2011 by Microsoft and other companies, momentum has only started really growing here of late – largely driven by the activities of the Weightless SIG (Special Interest Group)  (www.weightless.org) consortium, a non-profit entity officially created just under a year ago that currently promotes the Weightless standard for a wide range of M2M applications. With over 1200 current members worldwide, including companies like ARM, Cambridge Silicon Radio, C&W and Accenture, as well as the company that initially developed the technology – Cambridge-based Neul (www.neul.com) - the organisation is now raising its profile in a number of ways.

Based on duplex TDM technology using spread spectrum frequency hopping to minimise the impact of interference and other techniques to increase range and accommodate low power devices with low data rates, the Weightless concept hopes to drive M2M/IoT innovation from the bottom up as - well as the top down - with low entry costs and long battery life typifying products and technologies. The vision, while supporting more traditional businesses, also extends to hopefully encouraging entrepreneurial geeks to set up their own community networks, monitoring the local environment.

A section of the Weightless community came together in London at the end of September in a two day conference in the first Weightless M2M Summit to discuss progress and potential so far, bringing together speakers and an audience with a variety of different perspectives on the topic. Interestingly, out of the 150 attendees, there was a significant presence from mainland Europe, the US and Asia.


Weightless gains weight…
Most interesting to all the attendees however was the announcement from Stan Boland, CEO of Weightless manufacturer Neul, of firm product delivery dates and prices for the building blocks of a Weightless world. For a start, he said that production of its radio chip operating at 169-876 MHz would become available in November this year with volume production starting in the second quarter of next. Base stations would reach the market around the middle of next year as well, supported by an Ethernet connection for backhaul, a Power-over-Ethernet supply and Omni/Sectorised antennas. Weightless modules costing around USD12 each would also be available in 2014, with both price and component size planned to fall significantly in a short space of time, down to USD4 or less by 2016. With the consortium’s focus being very much on driving the applications area, software development kits would also be available by next summer.

The importance of this announcement to the growing Weightless community was recognised by Professor William Webb, Weightless SIG CEO, who commented: “This is a huge milestone for the Weightless ecosystem and will for the first time enable the wider developer community to engage meaningfully with the technology. Almost half the attendees at the Summit were applications providers – all very keen to take equipment and start delivering exciting solutions. The progress of Neul and others shows that they won’t have to wait very long!”

Also highly significant was the presence at the event as speakers of Adrian Scrase, CTO of ETSI and Cesar Gutierrez, senior policy advisor at Ofcom. Both brought the audience up to dare with the progress – and choices open to the Weightless SIG – in terms of standardisation, interference issues, spectrum availability, and how the supporting databases would be structured and operate. Of particular interest to LandMobile readers was the news from Ofcom that the UK would be among the first countries in the world to road-test White Space technology.


No more waiting for Weightless
Over the next six months, around 20 public and private organisations will be participating in Ofcom’s pilot by running trials to test a variety of innovative applications Companies involved include BT, Neul, Microsoft, Click4Internet, SineCom, KTS, while interest in developing the necessary supporting database technologies has come from Google, Nominet, LS Telecom and others. Application areas covered range from enhanced traffic information – to and from Cambridge, naturally - WiFi enhancement in urban areas, and sensor support for Smart City models.

The necessity of approaching the final IoT vision from a technology agnostic stance was also a consistent theme. As Kaivan Karimi, executive director at chip vendor Freescale and one of the speakers commented, “The IoT is all about a new generation of cloud based services provisioned through intelligent gateways – and there are a variety of connectivity solutions that need to be supported. On one side is the communications between the intelligent gateways and edge node devices, which primarily would use short-range, low-power and narrow bandwidth technologies such as Bluetooth, BTLE, Zigbee, ISA100, Low Power WiFi and so on. On the other side would be the technologies needed to communicate between the gateways and Cloud, which provide the WAN coverage. This is where we believe technologies such as the Weightless standard would make more sense compared to using LTE pipes.”


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