WTF is... Weightless?
Internet of Things enabler in the space between the TV signals
Weightless, the would-be world standard that allows devices to talk to devices without human intervention, reaches its first major release milestone this spring.
Version 1.0 of the technology specification is set to be published in March or April and then it will be able to begin making the much-hyped but yet to be delivered ‘internet of things’ start to happen, or so its backers believe.
IoT is about making it possible for devices to communicate autonomously, rather than solely as carriers of human conversation, be it vocal, video or textual. It’s a fluffy, Web 2.0 term for the old notion of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, a business which has been steadily growing over the past two decades, primarily on the back of expanding cellular networks run by operators keen to enable more serious stuff than Facebook updates and text messages for teenagers.
M2M may have been around for years, but it remains a long way from fulfilling its potential, even those possible applications that don’t sound too sci-fi. Imagine a world where gadgets are able to send each other appropriate information to save people from having to, or when humans are either too busy or simply not present to do so.
M2M and IoT proponents talk not only of driverless cars and smart cities, but of more useful things like home sensors that monitor occupants’ physiological signs to automatically call medical emergency crews should heartbeats stop. Or car-to-car links that send warnings from vehicle to vehicle to automatically prevent them getting too close, or to slow them in response to hazards up the road. Even prosaic, dull-sounding applications like monitoring the state of central heating systems are possible.
Incidentally, big software companies like Oracle are quite keen on M2M too. They eye the opportunities for cloud storage and big-data processing all the information flowing in from devices will require.
The world's devices, connected
There are perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of connected devices already in place across the world. That sounds a great many, but the world is a big place and they are spread thin. Many analysts believe that, given the right, non-proprietary technology, the market could rapidly expand to more than 50 billion devices.
What has prevented these applications from taking off, or at least remaining experimental, is the lack of an appropriate networking technology which can deliver all these digital messages, very cheaply and easily, and doesn’t depend on relatively fragile - no service-level agreements; punters can turn them off - infrastructure, such as consumer broadband links. Weightless’ supporters reckon it’s the answer.
The technology was devised by Neul, a Cambridge-based start-up founded in 2011. Late last year, the company established the Weightless Special Interest Group with the help of big guns ARM, Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) and Cable & Wireless to promote Weightless as a globally relevant, open standard.
To reach its full potential, M2M needs a network that’s ubiquitous. Devices have to be sure they can communicate, after all. A wireless car, for example, becomes useless if it moves beyond range of a base station. The mobile phone network operators have the reach, but their infrastructure is very expensive to extend and to maintain. That makes them pricey to use for many potential M2M applications where cost can quickly outweigh utility.
Clearly, devices like sensors and monitors need to be able to run for months, ideally years, on a single battery, or to be able to operate on a trickle charge from a renewable source of energy, such as a solar panel. That mandates ultra-low power transmissions because owners don’t want to pay people to find and change a huge number of batteries month in, month out.
The White Space of technology
Wi-Fi and cellular technologies such as 2G, 3G and 4G are global standards, but lack of local ubiquity currently rules out Wi-Fi for many an M2M application, and cost rules out cellular. Cellular is also hindered by battery sapping wireless technology. Bluetooth and Zigbee, on the other hand, can operate at very low power, but they lack the range of cellular and Wi-Fi.
Weightless, however, was designed specifically for M2M communications. Its trick: make use of the White Space spectrum. This is now available for unlicensed use in the US, and UK wireless regulator Ofcom may make the spectrum available to Brits by the end of the year. White Space is currently allocated to TV broadcasters, but different parts of the band are used in different locations, leaving space free for other uses.
Complicated rules govern unlicensed users hopping into the band to make sure that incumbents’ licensed toes are not stepped on. Essentially, that puts the onus on the arrivistes to find out what parts of the band are available to them at a given spot, to check this is so and, if necessary, to move at any moment.
The rules also mean they must operate on very low transmission power levels - handy for battery life - such as 4W for base-stations and 100mW for remote devices, which are the limits set down by the US Federal Communications Commission. They can’t leak into adjacent channels, either, by ensuring signals neighbouring segments of the band are 55dB lower than the selected channel - Weightless uses single-carrier modulation (SCM) to minimise adjacent channel emission levels.
TV broadcasts have no such limits, so the M2M kit has to cope with interference from them too, in Weightless’ case by frequency hopping over 8MHz channels (6MHz in the US) at the frame rate and by temporarily removing consistently noisy frequencies from the list of those it can hop to at a given location.
What makes the 400-800MHz White Space band good for telly makes it good for M2M: signals go a long way - 100 miles is well within the range - and can easily reach deep into buildings. Neul’s test set-up blankets Cambridge in Weightless coverage at the cost of six base-stations. The number of cellular base-stations in the same area is an order of magnitude greater. Which means that Weightless could be rolled out for a tenth of the cost.
Tuned for the Internet of Things
It’s handy that M2M communications don’t need to be either as fast or as continuous as technologies designed for human communications. People want their call quality to be good and their films to download quickly, and that requires high data rates.
M2M applications are generally happy to go slow because, though sent regularly, their data payloads are very small, maybe a tenth of a bit every second. That allows Weightless to trade speed for range - reach is more important than getting the data very quickly, especially when you’re trying to keep the power consumption low.
Weightless makes use to Time-Division Duplex (TDD) transmission to allow applications to select the most appropriate balance between downlink and uplink traffic. Essentially, base-station and device transmit in their own time, not simultaneously. Transmissions are encrypted.
All good stuff, then, but can Neul and co. get it established as a standard, a de facto one if not a formally ratified specification - the Weightless SIG is already pitching the technology to standards body ETSI? They certainly hope so.
Neul says it has base-stations and sample client chipsets available now and expects to be in volume production in six months’ time. Ofcom may still be consulting spectrum stakeholders about its proposed White Space usage rules, but the FCC has set down its regulations, and Whitespace follows them.
It follows the proposed UK rules too. Backers of the standard believe the rest of the world will follow the lead of the Americans or the Brits with only minor variations, and the Weightless specification can evolve to cope with all but the most radically divergent of such differences.
Not that there will be any, the supporters say. Like Wi-Fi before it, they think Weightless will do as much to define regional regulations as to follow them.
Being open - the specification is available for use Weightless SIG members on a mix of royalty free and FRAND terms - Weightless has an accessibility that comparable proprietary technologies lack. There's little other activity for White Space M2M. The IEEE is working on extending Wi-Fi into White Space, but its specification, 802.11af, is still in development and even the standards body doesn't expect it to become a ratified standard before H2 2014.
All of which means standardised White Space-hosted M2M and internet of things connectivity using Weightltess could be in play by this time next year, with major roll-outs to follow. ®