Brits score white space first with city-wide network

Most people probably associate the English city of Cambridge with posh academics cycling around in their Harry Potter-esque glasses and discussing the finer points of French philosophy. If you’re lucky they might be chatting about surrealist comedy over their pints of warm beer while floating down the river on their punts.

The reality, though, is that Cambridge is a city that takes a lot of technological risks — a fact that was underlined today when it was announced that it was now home to the world’s first city-wide white space network.

Just in case you’ve been a dark place rather than a white space, here’s a primer on what this actually means:

White space is about doing something with those parts of the radio spectrum that aren’t really being used — largely those left behind as TV switches from analogue to digital signals, and the old parts of the spectrum end up going fallow. Often called “Super Wi-Fi”, it’s seen as territory for all kinds of applications.

But although it’s clear that this spectrum should be deployed in new ways, how best to use these gaps has been a hotly-debated topic on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S., rules for white space use were approved a year or two back, and after proposals from Google and others (s GOOG) the idea has been that white space can be used largely for providing broadband-level connectivity to rural areas.

But progress has not been fast. As my colleague Stacey wrote recently, Congress has worked to ensure U.S. white spaces get used for innovative purposes — and are not just gobbled up by the likes of AT&T (s ATT) and Verizon (s VZ) — but it’s not moving forward very quickly.

In Britain, meanwhile, regulators decided last year that white spaces could sometimes be used to offload mobile traffic, effectively making data services more reliable. That’s a big deal for a nation where 4G has yet to make into the world, although just over the Channel in France, mobile operator Free is breaking some new ground by using Wi-Fi itself for offloading.

Internet of things

However, the Cambridge pilot is none of these things. Instead, it’s being seen as the potential for a “smart city” service — a network of connected devices that can talk to each other, and to service providers, without having to use any of the traditional communications channels.

At the vanguard here is Neul, the exciting young startup behind the Cambridge pilot that was formed by a team of technology veterans from the likes of CSR (s CSR) and Motorola (s MMI).

Neul has already tested the network with smart electricity meters that send messages over Cambridge’s white space, and will eventually feed back to energy companies and allow them to match supply and demand better across the grid. Beyond that, they see a range of other uses for white spaces.

As the announcement says:

In addition to the smart grid, Neul’s network opens up several fascinating possibilities for the Smart City of the future, enabling smarter transport and traffic management, city lighting and other municipal services.

“In a world of Smart Phones and mobile broadband it is easy to imagine that wireless connectivity has now been solved,” commented Glenn Collinson, co-founder and Board Member at Neul. “It hasn’t. Mobile broadband is too expensive for ‘things’ in the Smart City. Also mobile broadband means battery powered devices would need changing far too often. And all those sensors would load the cellular networks to such a level that there would be little network capacity left.

Collinson listed a number of objects which could piggyback on the network, including not just utility meters but also air quality sensors, street lights and parking spaces.

And here’s a particularly interesting thing: this is all currently provided by a relatively small amount of infrastructure — just six base stations scattered around the city (population 125,000). Here’s a map Nuel provided to show what their coverage is like.

Roll on rollout!

Photograph of Cambridge used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user aribakker