Has the Hype Killed the White Space Radio Star?
I’m hoping that everyone caught my first feature covering white space radio last month, Where are we with white space radio? as this is the second instalment. In part one, I offered a recollection of, and explained ‘what is’, white space radio. What’s more, I recalled the enormous hype surrounding the technology that ballooned three of four years ago, whilst I mulled over its application potential.
In this second feature, I want to take a closer look at why white space has seemingly stumbled, despite its surrounding hype. I have to confess that, in my experience, there’s always an associated amount of puffery within the telecommunications industry – an inflated balloon of hyperbole used to garner momentum for a new technology.
Stranger than fiction
Nevertheless, the Weightless SIG, a standards body that was created in 2011, was established to coordinate the technology roadmap and future of white space radio, which is currently led by Professor William Webb. So, I caught up with the Professor in the hope to better understand what happened.
Professor Webb and I are both set to meet in a restaurant in Cambridge – nothing too fancy, just simple in fact. Picture the scene: As the professor enters, he’s greeted by the waiting staff and is gestured towards me; I notice, as he approaches, that he’s confident and well-dressed with an all-knowing demeanour that uniquely distinguishes him from the rest of the crowd. We shake hands, and I reciprocate his warm greeting. I don my recently acquired Panama Fedora, with a confidence akin to Dick Tracy and a keenness to demonstrate ‘I know my stuff’.
I gesture to the Professor to take a seat, and pull out a cigar from my inside blazer pocket, offering it to the Professor – he politely declines. I turn away to light it whilst trying to remain manly and not choke on the thick smoke (you know how that goes). We’re in a part of the restaurant that’s dimly lit and I want to ensure that the Professor is comfortable despite the rather large cloud that is now forming…
Okay, okay… stop the story right there… it wasn’t like that at all. I just gave him a call – oh but, the drama!
Like a lead balloon, white space hit the ground hard
Professor Webb, along with several others, originated the name for the standard that is ‘Weightless’ and, in doing so, decided that the technology needed to be open. With William at the helm, he involved CSR and others to ensure that the technology truly became ‘Weightless,’ if you like, to essentially ‘lift it off the ground’. However, like a lead balloon, compounded by industry ‘huff and puff,’ white space radio hit the ground rather hard; the Professor conceded, “… [white space] hasn’t happened as excitingly as promised. The hope when Weightless was established was that it would be available around the world and, to date, that hasn’t been the case.”
The technology sanity check
Nonetheless, despite a lacklustre start, there are glimpses of the technology shaping up in several cities across the UK. Furthermore, Singapore has just started to enable the technology. But back in the UK, placed neatly beneath the ‘umbrella’ of the Internet of Things (IoT) and, with the technology largely empowered by Neul hardware, numerous trials have been set-up, including one in Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games, London, and Milton Keynes, along with several other cities.
The Commonwealth Games 2014 saw the BBC R&D team, along with Ofcom demonstrating the ability to wirelessly deliver content to portable devices. In a ‘futuristic’ demonstration, the R&D team were eager to showcase how, with white space radio, future broadcasting systems could perhaps benefit from the unused spectrum, but the demonstration was tainted by an agenda that was nothing more than a clandestine sanity check. It seems both the BBC R&D team and Ofcom wanted to ensure that utilising this unused radio spectrum didn’t actually interfere with the likes of Freeview, for example. This notion of ‘interference,’ has burdened white space radio since the onset of the digital television transition.
Is this as good as it gets?
Meanwhile, in Milton Keynes, again under the guise of the IoT, the city is set to become a test-bed for an infrastructure that will be implemented and supported by British Telecom and Neul. The infrastructure will comprise a series of base stations and sensors which, in turn, will empower an ecosystem that will enable parking spaces to let you know they’re free, as well as rubbish bins that let you know they need emptying.
Seriously? Is this someone’s warped, distorted, heavily medicated ‘futuristic’ vision – talking refrigerators and now talking bins? We certainly don’t need technology to tell our already ‘over worked’ local authorities that our bins need emptying – surely the fortnightly cycle is sufficient as a reminder! Crikey, if this is as good as it gets, then someone save me please! To be honest, when I read such speculative babble, then I really know we’ve not quite reached a technology definition that’s largely touted as the ‘Internet of Things’. I hate to be the bearer of bad news folks but, for the moment, the IoT is nothing more than ‘fugazi’. And the Professor agreed, adding “the Internet has created lots of hype, which gets the companies interested but, equally, the hype confuses.”
The washing machine test
I continued our discussion by asking the Professor about his vision – what was it that motivated the industry to continue the push with white space? William responded, “Machine-to-machine will take off (billions) but only with a dominant standard… and Weightless is it.” I should mention here that IoT and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) are often used (incorrectly) synonymously, but arguably M2M, as with other use cases such as the smart home, commercial automation, the smart grid/metering and so on fall under the all-encompassing umbrella of the IoT.
The Professor then said something that ignited my imagination: he used a benchmark term, the ‘Washing Machine Test”. I know I’ve ranted about talking refrigerators and rubbish bins, but William suggested that a washing machine could be armed with various sensors, which would collate data – this data could then be shared with the manufacturer’s database or perhaps a service centre who could quickly diagnose issues with the machine. Likewise the collected data could be utilised to share optimum wash cycles, ensuring the efficiency of the machine itself, as well as ensuring optimum use of natural resources.
At last, it’s this type of scenario that adds value!
A glimpse of the smart object
Suddenly I could begin seeing a sense of the IoT, vis-à-vis M2M taking shape through, perhaps, sensors that aided the technology itself, akin to a machine performing self-healing and self-diagnosis; moreover, the collection of data would allow ‘humans’ to make sense of information conveyed to us through technology that we’ve empowered – and it’s so important that such data is humanised for our generic consumption.
I wanted to clarify what was meant by M2M – so William further expanded on the M2M concept and explained, “A whole bunch of sensors sending information to a ‘central database’ … a database where appropriate action can be taken.” This rings true of the ‘smart object’ concept that was originally bounced around in the early days of the IoT supposition but, alas, industry pundits have been found guilty of exaggerating its potential. So, just like my dramatization at the start of this feature, the industry is likewise responsible of similarly sensationalising a technology that clearly needed to take baby steps. And finally, the Professor was emphatically honest in his acknowledgement that manufacturers need to invest in Weightless for it to become an adopted reality. In short, he concludes, “We need to back Weightless as it will pull through and will find the drive that it needs to move forward. But just when is impossible to forecast.”
Until next time
I want to take a look at small cells next time. And, on that note, I can’t help but wonder, whether a small cell is just another name for a femtocell – you know, the over inflated and, yet another uber-hyped technology that has been touted to resolve all our cellular connectivity issues. Yep, the mobile operators have been, and still are, experiencing over capacity and, likewise, poor coverage in rural areas. Of course, the operators’ stance to resolve this would be for us to dip into our pockets and purchase a femtocell so that we can continue to enjoy the wonders of cellular.
So, this is where an ever-so curious Dr G signs off.
Originally published in Telecoms.