Anyone who’s been watching the high-tech sector for long enough will have come to recognise those moments, says Alun Lewis, when a new standard or initiative suddenly reaches a critical mass of interest and activity or – ‘gotten traction’ – to use the language of West Coast silicon entrepreneurship …
With a wave of interest in the various potentials of White Space spectrum gaining pace around the world, a two-day conference in London at the end of September quite literally signalled the moment that all the work by the Weightless SIG is finally bearing tangible fruit. While the fact that around half the 150 or so attendees had a focus on real-world applications of the Weightless M2M technology – with significant presences from Europe, the US and Asia – it was a presentation on the first day from Stan Boland, CEO of Weightless product manufacturer Neul that showed how far and how fast this technology has emerged from concept to production with firm dates now set for product availability.
On the silicon side, he announced that tape-out production of its UHF radio chip operating at 169-876 MHz would begin this November with volume production planned to start in Q2 2014. Base stations would become available around the middle of 2014, supported by an Ethernet connection for backhaul, a Power-over-Ethernet supply and panel Omni/Sectorised Antennas. Additionally, initial Weightless modules costing around US$12 would be available in 2014, with both price and component size planned to drop substantially over the next couple of years, costs falling to $4 or less by 2016. Development kits for applications would also become available in Q2 2014.
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, he said – 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!”
The potential that White Space technologies have to support services is huge and the participation in the event as a speaker of Adrian Scrase, CTO of ETSI reflected this as he set out how standards strategies were going to evolve in this area, the choices for the Weightless SIG when it came to formal standardisation – and flagged up some of those communities across Europe likely to oppose initiatives here. A similarly strategic roadmap was laid out by Cesar Gutierrez, Senior Policy Advisor at UK regulator Ofcom who highlighted current work to examine potential interference issues, authorise appropriate geographic database standards and develop pilots over the coming year.
As one consultant commented, “If we’ve spent the last 20 years or so essentially strip mining the finite natural resource of the radio spectrum, White Space looks increasingly like spectrum fracking to extract the maximum operational value!”
Exactly where and how White Space – and more specifically Weightless – was going to sit alongside existing or planned competitive and complementary technologies was also a recurring theme. Speakers like Ben Ward, Network architect at MLL Telecom, saw great potential in the ability of the Weightless technology to bring to wireless M2M a new ground-up openness by deploying localised sensor solutions in an almost guerrilla-style approach that could challenge existing incumbents. For this to happen however – as was emphasised both during panel discussions and presentations – a whole range of other issues must also be addressed, such as developing standardised methodologies for databases, testing and interoperability.
Also stressed was the eventual – and necessary – heterogeneous nature of the final IoT vision. 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.”
He continued, “LTE pipes operating in 2.5+ GHz are an overkill for IoT type traffic. Weightless – using sub-GHz, unlicensed TV White Space – is technically and economically the best way to go for IoT related applications.”
With much of the initial input into the Weightless vision coming around Cambridge – known informally as ‘Silicon Fen’, one of the UK’s hot-beds of innovation – it wasn’t surprising to find that one recurring theme of presentations and discussions was the opportunity the royalty-free Weightless model gave to community-minded entrepreneurial geeks and hackers to develop their own solutions, building on similar approaches to that pioneered by the Raspberry Pi in the open computing world. For one example of this, checkout Love Hz (www.love-hz.com), one initiative currently underway around the City of Oxford. The focus here is on people building their own networks of sensors to monitor environmental conditions, with some similarities to initiatives around ten years ago where groups of people were building their own community-based WiFi networks.
As Robin Heydon of Cambridge Silicon Radio’s Research and Innovation Group summed up the event: “It was great hearing about all the interesting use cases that could apply Weightless technology. The Summit really opened up the mind about the potential markets for Weightless and how it fits in with other wireless technologies.”