Neul’s prospective M2M communications standard “Weightless” represents both an opportunity for the nascent “Internet of Things” (IoT) sector and a potential threat to MNOs with established M2M businesses.
Weightless is a radio technology developed specifically for wide-area M2M that uses unlicensed spectrum in the “white space” frequencies that is allocated to broadcasting but unused in specific localities.
Neul’s plan is to turn Weightless into a standard and hand it over to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, following the path trodden by Bluetooth and Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA). Weightless cleverly uses existing radio technologies, trading off longer ranges and lower power for bandwidth.
It also uses frequency hopping and spread spectrum to deal with interference rather than to maximize channels and throughput. Its success will depend on its ability to recruit some large, significant backers. If it is able to do this, it could disturb the balance in the IoT and M2M spaces.
Neul is a small, venture capital-funded start-up based in Cambridge, England. It is not the only player looking to utilize white space frequencies, nor is it the only one to offer an alternative bearer for M2M applications. Nevertheless, its strategic vision is clear and its technology is clever enough that it deserves to be monitored carefully.
Neul hopes to see one or more Weightless-based networks per country, and hopes to attract a community of chipset manufacturers to which it will license the intellectual property without charging a royalty. It hopes to make its money from licensing to network equipment manufacturers. The company has a design for a lightweight core network optimized for the low data throughput and relatively high latency that many M2M applications tolerate. It hopes to sell this either as a managed service or to license the software.
Currently, it is providing an end-to-end proposition, including manufacturing chipsets, modules, and a small number of base stations, which can then be used in pilot deployments. It has a trial license in Cambridge, and claims to be talking to governments “in countries such as Singapore” about using its network for smart-city applications.
Weightless lacks gravity for now
Neul and its Weightless standard lack large and significant backers. It has recruited BT and Cable & Wireless to its special interest group, which is not surprising given that both companies often show interest in unlicensed spectrum ventures, where they seek innovative and inexpensive redress for their lack of licensed mobile spectrum.
However, precedents such as BT’s UMA-based Fusion venture and both operators’ acquisition of “guard band” spectrum are not encouraging. Neul also has a number of smaller vendors on board, mainly from the test industry, and is said to be talking to chipset vendors and over-the-top players.
Another possible target market for Neul is mobile operators with an interest in M2M but no current presence in the market. Neul says that it would take just £50 million (€59.5 million) to build a Weightless-based network in a country the size of the UK, and obvious synergies exist for network operators including the re-use of sites and backhaul. Established M2M players and challengers would do well to monitor Neul’s progress, and should consider whether this is an opportunity they would rather embrace or extinguish.
Jeremy Green is a principal analyst in Ovum’s telco strategy practice. For more information visit www.ovum.com/