The great white space hope

There’s usually no shortage of opinion in this industry, so I’ve been surprised by the reticence I’ve encountered trying to find out what the big operators think about Neul, the UK startup that reckons a new wireless data standard it’s developed for operation in the TV broadcast white space spectrum should—and will—be adopted for M2M services worldwide.

If you believe that Vodafone, Orange and Telefónica and the GSMA cannot, between them, muster a single viewpoint on Neul’s proposition, then you’ll believe anything. So either they don’t want to talk about it because they’re currently assessing the firm’s ideas, or they think it’s  a blind alley and they’re following grandmother’s advice that, if you can’t think of anything nice to say, you should say nothing at all.  Or both.

The mobile industry has always had the dream of a single standard, and in reality juggled a variety of competing technologies. Now, as it inches ever closer to a single, harmonised approach with LTE, you’ve got to wonder how willing it’s going to be to add another into the mix, purely for M2M.

Recently I was at Sprint’s M2M Collaboration Centre near Silicon Valley. There’s no better example of the downside of a multi-technology strategy than Sprint, which struggles with iDEN, CDMA and WiMAX technologies and is likely soon to be adopting LTE in some form. The Sprint exec running the Collaboration Centre conceded that: “Operating three separate networks is incredibly expensive and not cost effective.” They’ll have a fourth with LTE; why would they want a fifth?

Ex-Smartone CTO and founder of industry consultancy Northstream, Bengt Nordstrom was one of two people I got a comment from. And he didn’t pull his punches.

“It’s highly unlikely that a start-up company will have its technology approved as a standard for white space usage, and this will ultimately prevent it from building any real volume and momentum with operators. The road to recognised and approved radio access technology standards is paved with interesting but unsuccessful start-up company initiatives.

Neul’s founders argue that existing and emerging network technologies, and the spectrum they occupy, up to and including LTE, must be used by operators to provide for existing services. The smartphone and mobile data boom will offer more than enough traffic to occupy LTE, they say, to the extent that they will be unable to afford to divert its resource to anything else.

They counter the argument that existing networks are sunk costs with the reply that a nationwide deployment of their technology in a market the size of the UK would cost only £50m.

It’s not ready yet, though. While the firm has developed products that can be used for trials, commercial use of the white space spectrum they’re planning on inhabiting is not legal anywhere in the world. And while it is anticipated that this spectrum will remain unlicensed, it doesn’t take an Olympic leap of imagination to picture regulators realising that, if there’s a commercial model for spectrum use, then perhaps there ought to be a commercial prerequisite for its exploitation.

Neul’s CMO, Luke D’Arcy described the company last week as “the Ericsson of White Space.” So when I was speaking to Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg last week, I asked what the Ericsson of Everything Else thought about the whole thing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn’t convinced. “Operators have networks already. Today [those networks] cover 85 per cent of the world’s population and we will cover 90 per cent soon. This means that the main opportunity for machine to machine is covered. I don’t see that there should be specific networks for M2M; and the operators in general see that they should use their existing networks for grabbing this opportunity.”

Of course the operators don’t seem to want to confirm that themselves. So what do you think? Does Neul have it right—White Space; the final frontier?

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One comment

  1. Avatar Russ Boreham 23/06/2011 @ 10:10 am

    Excellent article Mike, well written and I have spoken with a few people about this who also believe that to introduce a new (duplicate) technology covering an already established network within M2M is pricey and somewhat unnecessary. As with all things it will be up to Neul to provide a substantial ROI for its partners and at the moment we haven’t seen much of that.

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