Boland decouples IoT-focused NeulNET from ‘white space’

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Feb 11, 2014

This year IoT is going to be a major strand at Mobile World Congress and a glance through my large virtual container of events and ‘invitations to meet’ is enough to prove the point. Whatever else happens to the mobile sector, MNOs must be involved with the expected-to-boom ‘Internet of Things’. At the very least providing much of the connectivity for the billions of connections. Ideally building IoT/M2M management platforms and services as well.

The ‘why’ answer is easy. The world’s second-largest mobile operator, Vodafone, has just reported ‘organic’ revenue sharply down by 4.8 per cent in the three months to the end of December, compared to the same quarter the year before. This sort of contraction looks likely to continue and affect most MNOs, so other sources of wireless growth have to be found and IoT/M2M connectivity is natural MNO territory.

Stan Boland, chief executive of Cambridge-based radio specialist, Neul, thinks so too, and he's realigned Neul's entire IoT network strategy provide the platform.

Stan is a well-known and highly experienced silicon and radio entrepreneur. He was CEO and co-founder of Icera which built 4G/3G/2G cellular chipsets and was acquired by Nvidia Corporation in 2011 for $367 million. Stan was also co-founder of Element 14 Inc., a UK company building ADSL chipsets and software which was acquired by Broadcom Corporation in 2000 for $640 million.

So where before Neul was mostly about using the ‘Weightless’ standard and assembling an IoT network from white space spectrum (an unnatural fit, claims Stan), today it’s a sharply defined IoT network scheme, designed to appeal to existing “network and infrastructure owners”. In other words Neul has an approach aimed, not at new entrant or disruptive players, but straight at existing players who can leverage their network investments at relatively marginal cost - perhaps with just a software change in the case of MNOs.

So NeulNet (Neul’s announced product set) is claimed to be the technology that could transition MNOs from their current M2M approach - based on relatively expensive 2G cellular modules - to the technology and network model required for IoT where deployments will be counted in tens of thousands of units and where per unit costs will have to start at a few dollars a unit and work their way down from there.

So why the change in approach regarding white space technology?

Looked at closely, says Stan, the white space opportunity and IoT just didn’t make all that much sense together.

“The basic vision for Neul was to build the building blocks for an IoT-focused wide area network. We don’t think that LAN technologies - WiFi and ZigBee, for instance - can do the job because once you look at it there are all sorts of issues, like firewalls and power requirements, which rule LANs out.

“So we want this thing (the module) to be cheap. Single digit dollars and postage stamp size with - ideally - a printed antenna and capable of surviving for years. Neul had been evolving an interface with a draw of 4 or 5 microamps driven by batteries that could last 30 years - well beyond their corrosive decay rate.

“Neul was founded with that basic vision in place, but it also identfied TV white spaces at about the same time.”

Problem was, says Stan, that the case for the two things began to look much weaker once you started thinking about form factor and price-point. And the case for white space inclusion looked weaker still once you thought about their availability. The only countries which have really tried to foster white space use are the US and the UK, so global ubiquity (probably a non-negotiable requirement for an IoT network) could be some way off... if ever. Some countries or regions just don’t have white space available and where it is available the upper part of the spectrum will likely be refarmed for LTE.

“White space is a pretty good as a last mile “in the sticks” technology. And it could be good in some countries where there isn’t much TV,” he says, “but if you want a ubiquitious cheap network then white space is not really the thing for you.”

So the decision was taken to ‘decouple’ the white space story from the IoT network story. It’s not that white space technology couldn’t feasibly work with Neul’s IoT network but, says Stan, overall the two conceptions were actually pulling in different directions

Thus freed from the ‘white spaces story’ Stan re-concieved the spectrum requirement. For the IoT application what you actually needed were options for slivers of spectrum in the sub 1 Gig zone - these having the propogation characteristics needed for a wide area data network, especially the ability to go through walls. And you could make the systems tunable over a broad range of frequencies.

“Pretty much all operators have licensced spectrum below 1 Gig,” says Stan and, when you look at LTE, you find that it has lots of individual sub-carriers, each with guard-bands to protect against spectrum spillage. “It’s actually feasible to use these guardbands, a bit like teletext on the old TV system.”

Once the standards are in place and the low cost modules are being produced, all the mobile operators will need is a software change to inject NeulNet into the guardbands of their sub 1 Gig LTE networks.

The challenge for network operators, though, is the standardisation process. “The air interface that goes in there will be the work of several companies and therefore capable of being standardised and there are standardisation moves under way,” though he is not able to talk about this.

“This is going to take time, but operators need something now.. so in the mean time the technology could be deployed in a licenced exempt bit of spectrum by existing fixed line players or ‘disruptive’ players and offered on a wholesale basis.

This business model would be “ideally suited for somneone who already has fibre or copper. Cable operators or incumbent,” he claims.

The spectrum is not a problem - the system could use any sub 1 Gig slivers available, licensed or exempt. In this intermediate state (before guardband standardisation) the base stations would cost just a few hundred dollars each - the major cost, he says, will be in backhaul and installation. “You’d have to put them on something like street furniture. That always has a significant cost element.”

And last month Neul unveiled its solution - NeulNET - based on the Weightless open standard and “offering every element which an operator needs to provide a scalable, secure, resilient and economical service offering.”

It also announced that it was proceeding with a trial with BT which was sold on the system’s ability “to operate in licensed and unlicensed spectrum and across a variety of frequencies from global unlicensed metering bands (169 MHz or lower) up to and including sub-GHz cellular bands, this unique ability to use different spectrum allows service providers to use unlicensed spectrum or their own licensed spectrum as they choose.”

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