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Cambridge White Space boffins cook up Weightless chips

White Space networking takes a spin into silicon

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UK White Space pioneer Neul has got its Weightless protocol into silicon, ready for devices which will then drain batteries as slowly as they'd leak energy when not in use.

That's the promise of Weightless, a radio protocol designed to operate in White Space frequencies that are empty of local TV broadcasts. The idea is that millions of extremely low-power devices will drive the much-heralded internet of things. Early devices using Weightless have relied on software solutions running on generic chips, but now there's silicon from Neul which aims to hit that energy budget.

Not that Weightless needs to be so frugal: the same protocol can be ramped up to achieve 16Mbps and 10km in range (though not both at the same time) for point-to-point connections. Also, the same silicon will fit both applications, so Neul hopes to make the most of mass production.

Not that Nuel intends a monopoly on Weightless chips. The Cambridge-based company is the driving force behind the standard but has spun out Weightless Marketing Limited to promote its adoption, and the Weightless SIG to share the evolution.

Neul's chip is called "Iceni", after the tribe which knocked around Norfolk for a thousand years at about the same time Herald "Bluetooth" Gormsson was unifying the Norwegian tribes under Christianity. Herald lent his name to the short-range radio standard, but Weightless isn't really a competitor to Bluetooth. The Iceni were all killed by the Romans (though it would be no surprise if a few were still lurking at the back of the White Lion).

The Romans, in our analogy, are the mobile network operators, who reckon their 2G networks are good enough for the kind of machine-to-machine networking Weightless is aiming at, and are already securing significant wins. 2G GSM can't approach the battery life of Weightless, or the building penetration (2G won't reach an electricity meter in a basement, Weightless should), but 2G networks already exist and are emptying as humans migrate to 3G and 4G networks. Weightless, meanwhile, is still illegal anywhere except in the United States.

Ofcom is trying to push through legislation making White Space kit usable in the UK, and other countries are pushing ahead, but it is just one of the significant hurdles Weightless needs to surmount if those Iceni chips really are going to go into everything. ®

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