This week saw two significant steps towards the use of “white space” radio in the UK – and this could be good news for green projects including the smart grid.

Start-up Neul is proposing a technology that uses white space – the parts of the TV spectrum, between 470 and 790MHz, that are not used in any particular part of the country – for a network that is built to deliver full coverage of the UK. Since that radio band has very good penetration, when Neul says full coverage, it means it.

The Neul “Weightless” radio proposal could reach every house in the UK with a network that would cost £50 million to build – and actually penetrate to the cupboards under the stairs in those houses.

Wide-scale coverage

All this is theoretical – as it is still not legal to do things in white space in the UK without a special experimental licence. It’s eventually going to be “licence exempt” – similar to Wi-Fi, users will be allowed to use it as long as they don’t tread on other people’s toes.

There are other people proposing use of the white space radio spectrum for rural broadband – most notably, this week, BT announced a trial which will use it to connect a dozen homes on the remote Isle of Bute. Good coverage is what the country needs for the last consumers and businesses who are not connected to decent Internet, and BT, Virgin Media and Fujitsu are stumbling over each other to get fibre links up. However, fibre is expensive and other options are being considered including satellite – despite the fact that its slow responses make it a very different Internet experience.

Neul also mentioned rural broadband. Its name, incidentally, was one of the few remaining pronounceable four letter domain names, but conveniently also means “cloud” – albeit in Gaelic, which could be seen as a rural dialect.

If you’re not too far from a Neul base station, and not sharing its time-sliced access method with too many other people, you might get up to 16Mbps, CTO William Webb said at Tuesday’s launch.

But that’s not Neul’s real focus. It wants coverage, and if you are somewhere that can only be reached by Neul, the chances are you will have a few hundred kbps.

White space for smart grids

That is just fine for applications like remote monitoring electricity meters. Optimising electricity demand is supposed to deliver massive energy savings, but can only be done with a continuous connection to the electricity meter – however, it only needs a small amount of data to be transferred.

The economics of installing smart meters has been an Achilles’ Heel of the Smart Grid, since each smart meter will only make incremental savings, but will require a substantial hardware and networking budget.

Neul’s “Weightless” network is designed to deliver connections economically with monthly revenues of £2 or less. Average revenue per user (ARPU) on the mobile networks has to be around £20 per month, and the networks are pushing to get users to buy more data while hoping that 4G can deliver more capacity. The white space network could go in the opposite direction – offering lower capacity but much cheaper and with full coverage.

It will also need – Neul promises – much lower power, so devices can be small, perhaps running for years on a battery which could be printed along with the radio, creating a very low cost terminal device.

All this is still in the prototype stage – Neul’s current client device is an A4 sized tin box – but if it gets close to reality, it could be the salvation of the Smart Grid.

It could also be the missing piece in proposals from companies such as IBM and HP, to use millions of cheap sensors to optimise all sorts of other aspects of life, including transport and city life. These ideas, again, tend to assume very cheap networking to make it economic to use sensors to carry out or suggest small optimisations, which add up to big savings.

Peter Judge

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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