White space broadband gets green light in UK

The British telecoms regulator Ofcom has formally approved the deployment of white-space broadband technology in the U.K., following trials.

White space broadband uses the empty buffer zones that are placed between TV channels to stop them bleeding into one another. The broadband technology glues together these patches of spectrum and, as pilots around the world have shown, it can do so without interfering with the TV transmissions. This is achieved through the use of databases that tell the client device which spectrum it can use in which location and at which time.

Ofcom said on Thursday that it hopes the technology can be deployed in the U.K. by the end of this year.

“This decision helps ensure the U.K. takes a leading role in the development of innovative new wireless technology,” acting Ofcom CEO Steve Unger said in a statement. “It is also an important step in helping the U.K.’s wireless infrastructure evolve effectively and efficiently.”

White space technology may work, but few countries have thus far authorized its use due to concerns over interference. The only commercial deployment I have so far seen was that of a student-oriented network in Ghana, with [company]Microsoft[/company]’s involvement, which went live last month after an on-campus pilot.

The lack of widespread regulatory movement on white space broadband has already forced some in the industry to look to different spectrum for supporting their new internet-of-things networks. That’s a pity, as it works very well for sensor networks, and indeed it’s being tested out in the U.K. for flood defenses and smart city webcams and sensors.

Apart from that, the technology is also good at delivering web access over long distances and into buildings — just like TV broadcasts, funnily enough — and therefore has a lot of potential for both urban and rural broadband provision. As I saw for myself at a [company]Google[/company] trial in my native Cape Town, it’s no fiber competitor but it can make a real difference in areas where fixed-line providers are loath to roll out decent infrastructure.

Investors throw $115M at French IoT network outfit Sigfox

Sigfox, the French startup that’s rolling out an international internet-of-things network, mostly by partnering with local network operators, has scored a massive $115 million funding round from the likes of Telefonica and NTT DoCoMo.

The company provides the technology for its network of wireless networks, which only support low data rates but can handle millions of connections. This approach is designed for all those meters and sensors that comprise the internet of things, and is arguably a better bet for such devices than the traditional phone networks, which are aiming for higher bandwidth for mobile internet purposes.

The round consists of an up-front $93 million and a $22 million “greenshoe” that will see new shares drummed up for the new investors in the coming months. In a Wednesday statement, [company]Sigfox[/company] said it would use the money to speed up its rollout in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It’s already up and running in France, Spain, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Russia.

Sigfox already counted [company]Intel[/company] Capital, Elaia Partners, iXO PE, Partech Ventures and Idinvest among its investor. The new round brings in a host more: carriers [company]Telefonica[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]NTT DoCoMo[/company] Ventures, as well as Elliott Management corporation, GDF Suez, Air Liquide and [company]Eutelsat[/company].

The last three are industrial partners as well – GDF Suez and Air Liquide will give Sigfox a particular boost in the energy efficiency sector, and Eutelsat strategy director Jean-Hubert Lenotte said that company’s investment “signals our conviction that satellites can accelerate the development of the IoT market, both in terms of reach and reliability.”

Quietyme seeks to track and tame noisy nurses and neighbors

Noise is a significant problem in hospitals, costing them patient satisfaction and possibly dollars now that certain payments are tied to satisfaction metrics. It also can be a source of conflict and dissatisfaction in the hospitality and property rental industries, which is why Quietyme, a startup in Madison, Wisconsin, thinks it is sitting on a big business opportunity.

CEO John Bialk explained that his company already has pilot deals with more than 20 hospitals right now. Quietyme makes a ZigBee-based series of sensors that track the noise levels and then sells an analytics service to monitor them. The software is more expensive in the initial months when it is learning and tracking noise and then teaching the nurses in the hospital how to reduce it. Then the cost drops to a cheaper maintenance mode fee.

Quietyme System

The system works by placing a noise sensor in each room and hallway and then measuring the noise levels. The software looks for the peak levels for each second of the day because average noise is useless since there’s generally a lot of silence. When shown graphs of peak noise throughout the day, especially during times when people are sleeping, it becomes an effective tool to train people to change their behaviors.

Bialk said the ability to show people how their behavior affected noise levels that day was essential to helping them change their habits. The immediacy of the data is what enables people to change. It also can help bring the nurses into the process as collaborators because they can see the noise spikes and recollect what they were doing when it happened. That allows them to see where they can change.

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Outside of hospitals, Quietyme is also being used in apartments, in part because noise is also an issue that can set neighbors against each other, but also because the sensors track humidity, temperature and light levels. A rise in humidity can indicate a leaky pipe before it bursts or sudden change in temperature can tell a property owner if something is amiss.

Those same sensors are also why the hotel industry is so interested in the company’s products as well. Bialk, who was in property management prior to getting involved in startups, said that he thinks real estate is an area where the internet of things can have significant effects if companies want to build markets there. Considering the benefits of connected locks, data aggregating sensors and other connected products, he’d likely find plenty of others who would agree with him.

For example, the company, which was founded in 2013, has raised about $1.2 million in two rounds with American Family Insurance’s venture arm as its lead investor in both rounds. American Family invested because the possibility to stop catastrophic insurance claims before they happen, thanks to sensors in hotels or apartments, is worth investigating. Bialk said the system already detected a pipe that was on the verge of bursting in a hotel.

So far last year Quietyme has made just over $300,000 in revenue in 2014 and is still trying to meet demand for its products in the market that is serving today. It has plenty of room to expand and plans to add more sensors over time. Water sensors to check for leaks are next for example. As the focus intensifies on the smart home, Quietyme plans to make the most out of selling similar products into the commercial markets.

Apple spotted driving sensor-equipped vehicles in the Bay Area

San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX has been following a mysterious minivan tooling around Concord, California, with a roof rack fool of advanced sensors. Checking in with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the station found it was registered to Apple.

That led to some immediate speculation that [company]Apple[/company] is now testing its own self-driving vehicle fleet, but that’s probably a bit of a stretch. The Dodge minivan clearly has cameras and what appear to be light detection and ranging sensors, which are commonly know as LIDAR or just “lasers.” That’s pretty standard fare for a mapping vehicle, and Apple after all has its own cartography and navigation software, Apple Maps.

Apple sensor-equipped Minivan spotted by Claycord

Apple sensor-equipped Minivan spotted by Claycord

As an example, here’s a picture of a [company]Nokia [/company]Here mapping vehicle used to record 3D topographical data, which Nokia then loads into its Here app and sells to many, many customers (Nokia actually is the largest provider of mapping data to the vehicle navigation industry).

Nokia Here mapping vehicle

That doesn’t mean Apple isn’t stepping up its game. Apple Maps has been a bit of laughing stock since it first launched, and Apple has been trying to bring the service up to par with [company]Google[/company] Maps and Here. These camera-equipped vehicles might be compiling photographic data for a Street View kind of service, but there are other possibilities. LIDAR data could be used to add to its 3D library of cityscapes, and detailed street level imagery could be used to provide more accurate turn-by-turn directions and hone its map data with information on sidewalks, urban furniture and other minute details of the urban fabric.

Apple is delving much deeper into the car with the launch of CarPlay this year, so you would expect it to launch more iOS features and software that target drivers. And as with all with location apps in the car, your service is only good as the maps it draws upon.

Connected canine outfit Whistle buys competitor Tagg, raises $15M

When Whistle first came on the scene with in 2013 with its dog activity monitor, there was already an established player in the canine wearable market, Tagg the Pet Tracker. Well, that rivalry is no more. Whistle announced on Thursday that it has bought up Snaptracs the company that makes Tagg for an undisclosed amount and has raised $15 million in new funding.

The Series B round and the acquisition are actually closely tied as one of Snaptracs previous owners, [company]Qualcomm[/company], has reinvested in its new buyer, according to Whistle co-founder and CEO Ben Jacobs. [company]Nokia[/company] Venture Partners led the round with participation from Qualcomm and two celebrity-backed VCs: Melo7 Tech Partners, the investment vehicle of NBA star Carmelo Anthony, and QueensBridge Venture Partners, which was founded by hip hop icon Nas (Perhaps Melo and Nas are dog lovers). Whistle has now raised a total of $25 million.

Combined, Whistle and Tagg will have 100,000 connected dog collars in the market, Jacobs said, but they both target different applications. Tagg primarily has been a GPS and cellular tracking collar that will keep tabs on pets for a monthly subscription fee. Whistle meanwhile created a kind of Fitbit (see disclosure) for pooches, using accelerometers to monitor daily exercise and rest and charting those metrics on its smartphone apps.

Whistle's activity monitor

Whistle’s activity monitor

According to Jacobs, Whistle will keep both types of products in the market, but it plans to combine a lot of their features, drawing on Tagg’s expertise in making durable, low-power and innovative hardware. For instance, Tagg has developed ambient temperature sensors that can detect when your dog is overheated. Whistle, however, has developed the superior software platform and apps, Jacobs said.

Whistle has actually been experimenting with a GPS tracking device in San Francisco using a new test network built by SigFox in the Bay Area. While the startup plans to continue that work, Jacobs said, Tagg’s product line would allow Whistle to immediately offer its own commercial GPS collar across the country.

For current Tagg users there will be no interruption of service, Jacobs said, and Whistle will continue selling Snaptracs most recent product the Tagg GPS Plus online.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.


Declining sensor costs open up new consumer applications

One of the factors in the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT)—the networking of the physical world within existing Internet infrastructure—is the rapid decline in the cost of sensors.

Sensors are critical to IoT. Consider a connected thermostat: Without motion, humidity and temperature sensors, there is no data that algorithms can use to set points tailored to a user’s behavior.

In some cases sensor costs have declined by as much as 100X over the past decade. One of those cases where a startup is attempting to drastically change the economics of sensors is in the area of near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. If that phrase sounds familiar, it may be because of all the attention SCiO is getting.

Designed and assembled in Israel by startup Consumer Physics, SCiO is an NIR spectrometer for consumers, set to roll out by summer 2015 for $249 per unit. NIR spectrometry detects the spectrum created from shining a light source at a given sample. That light spectrum—a so-called molecular signature—can be used to identify matter.

Typically, NIR spectrometers are found in university research laboratories and can run as much as $50,000. But Consumer Physics sourced hundreds of cheaper components globally and traded some sensitivity and accuracy of the sensor in order to get it to a consumer price point.

While we don’t know the full possibilities for the SCiO, initial applications center around plant hydration, pill analysis, and food. The SCiO can be pointed at a food item in order to notify a user of the calories as well as the protein, carbohydrate, and fat content. (SCiO can actually distinguish Pepsi from Coke.)

I spent some time speaking with Dror Sharon, the co-founder of Consumer Physics. While Sharon is focused on making sure that the initial applications—food, pills, agriculture—are working well and creating a solid user experience, he noted in a moment of candor, “Honestly, just making something a 100 to a 1000X cheaper is pretty cool in itself.”

As we gear up to guide a new IoT focused channel over at Gigaom Research, innovations in sensors are important because as more complex data becomes available, the potential to produce creative applications for that data grows. For SCiO (and other up-and-coming companies), that means paying a lot of attention to its developer community and its SDK because the more engineers that take its data and use it to build promising applications for that data, the better for Consumer Physics.

Creating a warehouse of data on matter and the physical world is a massive project. It also requires developers with expertise beyond coding. With that in mind, Consumer Physics has released an expert-level SDK that allows developers to download spectrum data without noise cancellation in the hopes that they will develop their own algorithms and tailor the data coming out of a SCiO to new and specific applications. Sharon says that almost daily the company is fielding requests for the hardware to be implemented in diverse applications. One smart-home request came from a blender-maker that wants to integrate the sensor so it could provide the nutritional content of a morning shake.

On the horizon, Sharon and I talked about what other-next generation sensors might either significantly decline in cost or be accessible to consumers in the next 5 to 10 years. We discussed ideas ranging from infrared camera sensors to 3D motion sensing to “digital noses,” or sensors capable of analyzing the air to high degrees of sensitivity.

For now, SCiO is an incremental step towards making a research-level sensor available to both consumers and hardware developers. There will be challenges converting the volume of data into consistent and useful results and to effectively creating a machine that can learn and gets more intelligent with time. But dropping the price of the sensor by 200X and making it available to a broad group of developers is a start.

US Cellular gets into the connected home biz

Regional mobile carrier US Cellular announced a new home automation and security service called OnLook, which looks to be aimed squarely at AT&T’s Digital Life and other smart-home-in-a-box services.s

US Cellular is partnering with Alarm.com, a company that – more than its name implies — specializes in smart home management over cellular networks, to offer several tiers of home security, environmental monitoring and home control services. At its most basic level, you get some motion, window and door sensors. But at more expensive tiers, you can add carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, a smart thermostat and remote appliance and light switches. All of those devices can be monitored and managed from Alarm.com’s Android and iOS apps or from a web browser.

The service is launching in Iowa and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which are both in US Cellular’s coverage area of mid-sized to rural markets. The company hasn’t yet revealed any plans to expand to other markets, but it’s likely given the system could technically be implemented anywhere the regional carrier has wireless coverage.

In fact, US Cellular has been treading more into the traditional wireline service world, using its mobile network to offer residential phone and broadband services.


WunderBar sensor kit gets notifications app for broader appeal

The open-source WunderBar kit is a distinctive attempt to get app developers to shift their attention to the internet of things. It takes the form of a chocolate bar, the individual pieces of which can be broken off, with each piece containing different sensor functionality, such as temperature and humidity, sound, light and proximity, and motion, and with low-energy Bluetooth tying the system together.

Whereas other systems like Spark and LittleBits are more geared toward people who like to fiddle around with little wires, WunderBar firm Relayr specifically targets app developers who are only starting to think about hardware. The system comes with software development kits (SDKs) for Android and iOS, and months after launch there are already interesting ideas springing up, such as InsulinAngel’s temperature-sensing capsule for the kits diabetics have to carry around (you don’t want the insulin to spoil) and BabyBico, a system that uses Wunderbar’s accelerometer and sound sensor to monitor babies’ sleeping patterns.

But Berlin-based Relayr, which has an international distribution deal with German electronics retailer Conrad, wants to broaden WunderBar’s appeal. To that end, on Thursday it released a new app called TellMeWhen, which makes it easy for WunderBar owners to get simple notifications when, for example, the proximity sensor is activated, or when the accelerometer and gyroscope detect movement, or when the temperature sensor’s environment gets too hot or cold.

WunderBar kit with "chocolate" casing

WunderBar kit with “chocolate” casing

“The goal of TellMeWhen was to provide immediate value for both developers and non-techies,” Paul Hopton, Relayr’s chief engineer, Paul Hopton, told me. “We have had a lot of interest from people who are not developers and would like to learn to program to be able to solve simple problems in their life with the WunderBar. We hadn’t expected that. We designed the TellMeWhen app to be able to deliver immediate value for these people. We are also reworking a lot of the documentation to cater for people who are absolute newbies.”

The app will work on any Android phone running version 4.0.3 of the OS or higher. Initially, it’s just doing direct notifications, but Hopton said Relayr hopes to fully integrate the platform with IFTTT in the second quarter of 2015. “Depending on feedback, we may also add some simple features like tweeting in the next major version of TellMeWhen,” he said.

I’ve been playing around with the WunderBar kit and a beta version of TellMeWhen and, as someone who doesn’t have the first clue about coding and breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of a breadboard, I very much like the concept. I found the WunderBar “onboarding” process – getting the system set up on my home Wi-Fi and fully communicating with the separate Relayr management app – a little shaky, with a fair amount of logging out and in again to get it to work, but once it was working it did what it promised to do.

Having recently bought a Raspberry Pi as well, I’m also glad to see that the WunderBar kit’s bridge module will plug into that (I need to get more into tinkering.) The bridge will also connect Wunderbar with the Grove and Arduino systems. With a field as new as the internet of things, and with so many low-cost toys to play with, compatibility is a definite benefit — particularly as the Wunderbar kit isn’t so cheap itself, coming in at just over $200.

This article was updated at 8.35am PT to change “Android 4.3” to “Android 4.0.3”.