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Cambridge startup launches world's first white space radio

16Mb/s, 10km range, battery-powered and licence-free... just not legal

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Neul, the Cambridge startup staffed by some of the UK's top radio boffins, has started manufacturing a white space radio, despite the fact that there isn't a single country where such a thing would be legal to use.

Neul launched last year, and has been talking about protocols and standards for use in white space: television broadcast frequencies not being used locally. Now the company has real kit to sell, offering connection speeds of up to 16Mb/sec (declining rapidly with range but extending to 10km at a push) for organisations that want to see what white space can do for them – once they've obtained an experimental licence of course.

Such licences aren't hard to obtain: Neul told us that Ofcom processed its application within a couple of weeks, though we can't help feeling the company's pedigree of staff might have eased the process. But within a couple of years such a licence shouldn't be necessary as Ofcom is poised to allow unlicensed exploitation of the UK's white spaces.

The NeulNet boxes

That unlicensed use will be technology neutral, just as 2.4GHz is now, so any networking kit will have to contend with garage door openers, baby listeners and so forth. White space transmitters will be required to check with an online database to see what frequencies are available, which should prevent the more-trivial applications, but expect to see a wide variety of applications filling the bandwidth once it opens up in the next few years.

Neul reckons the best mitigation for that is to create a standard protocol, just as the majority of devices at 2.4GHz are using the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards which have learned to get along. The proposed standard is called "Weightless", and will be formally launched in the next few weeks, with a conference to discuss the standard scheduled for the end of September – only then will we be able to see how widely (and if) it gets adopted.

Predictions for embedded, and networked, devices vary by tens of billions, but most observers agree that they'll be something in the region of 50 billion devices looking for a network connection in the next few decades. Neul has calculated it could build a national Weightless network to connect British ones up, reaching into the basement of every home in the UK, for £50m or so. Neul isn't planning to do that, but would love to sell the kit to someone who wanted to, or even license the design (and patents) to a manufacturer who fancied making some Weightless radios.

But that's for the future. Today the company can sell a working base station and battery-powered clients (A4 in size) for experimentation. It's the ideal Father's Day gift for anyone who thinks they might have something we can use to fill the empty spaces. ®

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