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The radio system bringing connectivity to the toughest environments in the world

Finnish company KNL Networks has developed a secure alternative to satellite communications for challenging environments.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor

For some, not being connected may sound like a paradise, but if you're tanker in the middle of the ocean or conducting a military operation in a far corner of the globe, bad connectivity can cause more than a few headaches.

Such remote areas have traditionally been the domain of satellite communications, but now Finnish startup KNL Networks claims to have developed an alternative that is not only cheaper but offers reliable global coverage.

"If we think about especially marine traffic and other demanding environments, the situation has been that if you don't have satellite communications, you don't have any kind of communication," says Toni Lindén, CEO of KNL Networks. "One of our benefits is simply that there now is an alternative long-range communication system."

KNL has been developing its Cognitive Networked HF (CNHF) radio system since 2011, when the company was spun-off from the University of Oulu's Centre of Wireless Communication. Although it's called a radio system, CNHF is far from your in-car entertainment: it uses shortwave radio transmissions to send and receive any form of digital data, including files and real-time location data, over thousands of kilometres.

The technology behind the system combines traditional high frequency (HF) terrestrial radio technology with modern cognitive and software-defined technologies. The latter is key, as it replaces typical hardware components (such as mixers and amplifiers) with software, enabling it to work even in the most demanding environments. Meanwhile, cognitive radio can intelligently detect the wireless spectrum in its vicinity and automatically change its transmission or reception parameters according to what is the optimal wireless channel available.

"The core problem we have been able to solve by using cognitive radio technologies is the management of reliability in high frequency radio spectrum," Lindén says. "When conditions are constantly altered by the Earth's magnetic field, the sun, users and so on, our system can automatically adapt to the prevalent situation by optimising the frequency usage and data transmission parameters. We don't know any other system in the HF spectrum or any other radio networks which can use the functionalities of cognitive radio as widely as we can."

The result for end users is improved performance and reliability, all while being easy to use.

Simple usage

At the core of the CNHF system is a physical radio, but what users actually operate are their own laptops and connected devices. The radio is only equipped with an on/off switch and can be connected to a router through an Ethernet cable or directly to a laptop giving access to online services such as email and instant messaging. The company says the maximum data rate is 153kbps - not fast by home broadband standards but enough to enable critical communication.

"Our system is directly IP compatible, it supports both IPv4 and IPv6. In practice this means that our radio acts as an terminal exactly the same way as a satellite terminal," says Lindén. "We can transmit practically any IP data. In the next phase we are planning to enable VoiP calls and web browsing."

While KNL claims its radio system can be used anywhere in the world, including Arctic areas which are still a weak spot even for satellite communications, it's mainly targeted at demanding operational environments in security and defence, as well as industrial sectors. These are areas where satellite communications are commonly used, but KNL believes it can offer both cost advantages by using traditional radio waves and ensure greater reliability.

"If we compare [CNHF] to satellite data transmissions, which is the only similar system, a major difference is that every time we transmit data we create a dedicated one-to-one link for the user so the data rate isn't shared," says Lindén. "In satcoms, downlinks are shared between users which means the service level is dependent on the load to that specific satellite."

The one-to-one link CNHF provides is also crucial to another key area in the defence sector: security. All data, including system information, is encrypted and transmitted inside the company's proprietary system.

"Furthermore it is extremely complicated to cause interferences in the system. The capability to steer away from interference is in way a built-in functionality in the cognitive radio technology we use," says Lindén. "I dare to claim that even governmental players cannot interfere with it."

Wartime roots

Commercial availability of the CNHP system only began some months ago, but KNL has already secured its first military customers and is preparing for pilots in the maritime industry. Despite its obvious interest to security and defence sectors, KNL also envisions a future for CNHP in any industry where demanding environments cause challenges for real-time data transfers.

Interestingly, the origin of KNL is steeped in history. The name is an abbreviation of Kyynel ('tear' in English) which was the name of a portable HF radio developed by the Finnish intelligence services during the Winter War in 1939-1940.

"Of its time [Kyynel] was by far the most advanced HF radio around. We partly operate with the same basic technology which gave us a connection to the name," says Lindén. "Long before mobile phones, Kyynel was the first wireless innovation to come from Finland."

KNL Networks aims to be next one.

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