Next year, the first Weightless networks will pop up in Shoreditch and Cambridge, but white space spectrum regulation remains an issue
Internet of Things (IoT) experts were optimistic as they outlined the future for Weightless at the first global summit dedicated to the innovative machine-to-machine (M2M) communications standard on Wednesday.
The early iteration of Weightless relies on “white space” frequencies – the unused portions of TV broadcast spectrum – to connect devices in a five mile radius from the base station, with chips which are able to transmit information for a decade while feeding from a single battery.
Next year, some of the first trials of the wireless technology are scheduled to take place in Cambridge and Shoreditch, London. At the same time Neul, the Cambridge start-up responsible for Iceni, the first ever Weightless chip, will release a number of developer kits to the public.
However, experts from European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and Ofcom warned that the regulatory framework around white space use is still under development, and the results could shape the new standard in unexpected ways.
“If you like it then you shouldn’t put a SIM in it”
A complete specification for the Weightless standard, first announced in 2011, was published earlier this year. The volume production version of Iceni is expected in November, at $12 per chip. The price is predicted to drop to $4 by 2016, and eventually settle on $2.
Weightless is the world’s first and only M2M standard designed to work with spectrum designated for television broadcasting but not engaged in a particular location due to the pattern of TV transmitters.
However, Weightless Special Interest Group (SIG) CEO William Webb said that the use of white spaces is the “worst case scenario”, and the technology could be adapted to any narrow frequency band. The main advantage of white space spectrum is in the fact that it can be used without obtaining a spectrum licence.
Webb also highlighted the open nature of Weightless, saying that the successful wireless technologies, such as GSM or Bluetooth, were all based on open standards, while proprietary protocols such as WiMax or ZigBee struggled to gain traction.
He compared the task of developing a new communications standard to starting a new religion, with success depending on persuasive evangelists and large numbers of believers.
Gary Atkinson, director of Emerging Technologies at ARM, told the audience that IoT could help humanity deal with 21st century socio-economic issues such as water and food shortages, energy crisis and aging population. For example, sensors could be used in irrigation to stop wasting water, and help elderly people remain in their homes, with their health remotely monitored by medical professionals.
Most people know ARM thanks to its mobile device processor designs, but it also has a thriving micro-controller business. Earlier this year, the company partnered with LogMeIn to launch the Xively Jumpstart Kit – a cheap, accessible way to bring M2M solutions to the market. Atkinson said that the success of Weightless will depend on similar partnerships.
“We need to work together as an industry to build platforms like Weightless, with its open structure, so other people can innovate on top of that,” said the ARM spokesman. “Long-range wireless connectivity is controlled by too few companies at the moment.”
In a perfect world, Atkinson would like to see public sector involvement with the new standard. He also suggested that it would cost under £100 million to cover the majority of the UK with a Weightless network – small change when compared to the £50 billion bill for the HS2 rail project.
Ben Ward, network architect at MLL Telecom and one of the organisers of the recent Electromagnetic Wave conference in London, said that even if the government doesn’t get involved, the popularity of M2M could lead to the emergence of “guerrilla sensor networks” – community-driven projects that serve a local agenda. Since white space spectrum is free, such networks could pop up without requiring permission from any government agency.
ETSI has already published a feasibility study and use cases for white space spectrum, including M2M applications. However, Adrian Scrase, CTO of the organisation, warned that the international standards are still being drafted. They are expected to be released in the first half of 2014, but the process could take longer if the public consultation on the subject, which runs until 31 October, receives a lot of comments.
Scrase explained that while white space repurposing had serious support in the UK, it is opposed in Germany and France, with these countries having their own “valid reasons.”
“Yes, we can make it work from a technical point of view, we seem really good at aligning our technologies, but getting aligned from a regulatory point of view seems so much harder,” said Scrase.
According to Cesar Gutierres, senior policy advisor at Ofcom, the challenge for the UK watchdog is to facilitate access to free spectrum while protecting its original users – Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE). Ofcom also has to keep regulatory burdens to a minimum if it wants to encourage innovation.
To function, white space devices need information on free spectrum available in a particular location. Ofcom will allow the existence of many white space databases, but all of the providers will have to get a contract with the watchdog, which will monitor the quality of data.
Gutierres said that the database model is new, and the current legal framework around spectrum in the UK does not include relevant regulation yet. Ofcom is moving towards its own white space pilot, scheduled to begin in the next three months, and it will develop new rules as the project progresses.
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