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UK start-up uses TV's white spaces for broadband

Neul, headed up by veterans of the Cambridge wireless technology scene, is promising to deliver M2M communications and broadband using the spaces between TV transmissions
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Cambridge-based start-up Neul has unveiled a new radio protocol for providing local broadband and machine-to-machine services using the so-called 'white spaces' between TV transmissions.

James Collier Neul

Neul's chief executive James Collier has outlined the start-up's plans to use the 'white spaces' between TV broadcasts to transmit data. Photo credit: David Meyer

The Weightless protocol was launched on Monday alongside a system called NeulNet, which includes production base stations and terminals. At its launch event in London, Neul said it is setting up a standards body, under the auspices of the Cambridge Wireless industry network, to ratify and develop Weightless as a standard.

NeulNet is capable of transmitting data at up to 16Mbps and has a range of up to 10km, although the data rate falls off considerably at the outer reaches, according to the company. The technology is mostly being targeted at the nascent smart-meter industry, as well as automotive telematics and home healthcare systems. NeulNet kit is already shipping for trial by telcos and companies developing smart-meter systems.

However, as the internet of things is still in its infancy — connected smart meters are only just starting to be rolled out — the company is also pitching the capabilities of NeulNet as ideal for local broadband schemes. It said its system has a range around three times that of 3G, is better at indoor penetration and would cost only $50m (£31m) to deploy across 99 percent of the UK population.

By comparison, a mobile network would cost closer to $800m, Neul's chief executive James Collier said at the launch. The company reckons there is around 150MHz of white space available in the UK, whereas a cellular network typically has around 30MHz to use.

One factor is that NeulNet's power consumption is far lower than that of cellular technologies. Neul plans to release an embedded chipset in 2012 that comes in under $5 (£3) and has a 15-year battery life. It is aiming for a sub-$1 chipset by 2015.

White spaces

White spaces are the pieces of spectrum that lie between 400MHz and 800MHz, the band used for television broadcasts. Because broadcasters need to avoid their transmissions interfering with one another, they leave a fair amount of spectral space in between those signals, and a burgeoning industry wants to use those white spaces for data transmissions.

Tv mast

White spaces are the pieces of spectrum that lie between 400MHz and 800MHz, the band used for television broadcasts. Photo credit: Frankie Roberto/Flickr

White-space use is unlicensed and therefore free, unlike cellular spectrum. It is not yet legal to use white spaces for data transmissions in the UK — small-scale implementations have begun in the US — but Ofcom launched a consultation about its use in November 2010 and is expected to make proposals about the matter within the next year.

The regulator's decision will have to take into account the EU's first common spectrum policy, enthusiastically approved by members of the European Parliament in May with an amendment endorsing white-space broadband.

Neul is headed up by veterans of the Cambridge technology scene. Several key members of the team — Collier, strategy chief Glen Collinson and engineering chief Robert Young — were co-founders of Bluetooth firm Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR). Its chief technology officer William Webb, the former director of technology resources at telecoms regulator Ofcom, is on the board of Cambridge Wireless.

M2M sector

According to Webb, Neul's system is specifically designed for white-space use in the machine-to-machine (M2M) sector, which deals in extremely low data volumes, in the order of 50 bytes per message.

We decided it was very important to design a new technology for M2M because many of the requirements are completely different to those of humans.
– William Webb, Neul

"We decided it was very important to design a new technology for M2M because many of the requirements are completely different to those of humans [and their smartphones]," Webb said at the launch. He explained that M2M applications not only use much less data than web surfing, but are also more tolerant of latency.

Additionally, Webb said, NeulNet overcomes some of the limitations suffered by companies that adapt existing wireless telecoms kit for white-space use.

"If you just re-band existing tech into the white-space band, you end up with very few channels you can actually use," he explained. NeulNet allows the exploitation of between 10 and 14 white-space channels, and it uses a technique similar to that employed by Bluetooth to hop between available frequencies.

FCC standards

Crucially, NeulNet is the first wireless system to meet standards imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US equivalent of Ofcom, for adjacent channel power, according to Neul. This specification is designed to eliminate interference between white-space networks and broadcast networks.

The company intends to make Weightless an open, royalty-free standard, with the specification available to members of the Weightless Special Interest Group (SIG). Collier said the company prefers to take this route, rather than charging royalties for the patented technology, as "interoperability increases the total addressable market".

Asked whether Neul was in advanced talks with any UK smart-meter industry groups, Collier criticised Sensus, the company partnering with BT and Arqiva to bid for the communications part of the smart-meter rollout as SmartReach. He noted that Sensus's FlexNet technology "doesn't do download of firmware", as NeulNet does. In addition, he said FlexNet "would be pants even if the technology was good, because with one supplier, how are they going to guarantee the continued supply of the silicon?".

"You've got to have Broadcom, Texas Instruments and so on making chips to [the chosen] standard," Collier said.

Sensus responded to Collier's claims on Wednesday, telling ZDNet UK that FlexNet does indeed do firmware downloads. 

Neul intends to provide the intellectual property (IP) behind the Weightless protocols. "I don't yet know if we would license design IP for terminals," Collier said.

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