Cambridge hopes wireless industry goes InCognito for white space devices

Cambridge Consultants, an intellectual property and technology consultancy firm in the UK and Boston, MA, has developed a new wireless transmission technology that won't interfere with broadcasters’ signals in the unlicensed 700 MHz, or white space of the spectrum abandoned with the shutdown of analog broadcasts in the United States in June.

Other companies (Google, Microsoft and Philips, to name a few) have made similar claims before, so objective, real-world field testing — which is now ongoing in the UK and United Sates, according to Cambridge Consultants — is critical to prove the technology’s performance. Cambridge plans to release the results of recent field trials in rural and urban areas “soon,” it said.

With working prototypes ready to productize, the company’s initial main target for the technology is alternative content providers and consumer electronics companies marketing to consumers in the United States. Luke D’Arcy, a wireless industry veteran and business development manager for Cambridge Consultants, said the company learned from the mistakes made by those that came before it and the “immense pressure” it they were under when they presented a prototype to the FCC in the summer of 2008 that did not perform as planned. Earlier, the commission’s engineers looked at devices from Adaptrum, a Silicon Valley white space startup, Motorola and Philips.

“The biggest problems with using the white space up until recently is that it was illegal to do it, so we couldn’t really adequately test a reliable technology,” said D’Arcy. “We have the experience and knowledge to do it correctly, without interfering with anybody. It can be made to work, it’s just technically very tough to do and has to be implemented properly.”

The new InCognito platform is based on cognitive spectral-sensing radio technology that until now has been used in defense and security applications. According to the company, it allows white space radio transmitters (computer routers, home networks, etc.) to quickly and accurately detect and avoid other broadcasts by automatically sensing and then finding a new frequency. It does this using an online database to check for and locate unused frequencies and quickly tune the device to a clear channel with minimal delay.

Cambridge said the InCognito platform could also be used to increase the accessibility of low-cost high-speed wireless Internet services, including rural communities that the Obama administration is now championing. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has repeatedly warned that the United States doesn't have enough spectrum for desktop broadband or mobile device users.

Indeed, the FCC is considering taking back some more of the 2.5GHz spectrum (where WiMax products currently operate) from television broadcasters and auctioning it off to wireless companies to increase the availability of mobile broadband services. It’s an idea that is gaining momentum among a number of industry organizations and key media executives. A strong argument in favor of reclaiming some of the spectrum broadcasters were given for free is that broadband access is simply more useful to the average citizen than traditional TV.

The attraction for consumer electronics manufacturers is that these white space TV band frequencies (around 700MHz) easily penetrate walls, potentially extending the range of home area networks and other portable devices while also allowing a range of new applications, such as reliable high-definition video streaming from a single access point to every room in a house. The new frequencies, recently authorized by the FCC, also greatly increase the overall wireless bandwidth available to computers, set-top boxes, laptops, WiFi hot spots and other radio devices that currently use the unlicensed band around 2.4GHz.

Cambridge’s D’Arcy said for Internet service providers, it’s more cost-effective to use 700MHz equipment with built-in cognitive technology that requires less access points than it is to deploy the many more sites needed when operating within 2.4GHZ bandwidth.

“If you have a 700MHz-800MHz radio transmitting at the same power as a 2.4GHz transmitter, the 700MHz signal will travel three to four times farther than that on the 2.4GHz spectrum,” D’Arcy said. “Using the white spaces, we could cover an entire airport terminal with wireless Internet access without any problems. The same can’t be said for the currently used 2.4GHz spectrum, which requires more sites and is overcrowded. Anyone’s who’s tried to get a good signal in an airport knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

For several years, Cambridge Consultants’ engineers have been working on cognitive algorithms for a wide range of applications, including those aimed at the professional and consumer markets. D’Arcy said the strategy is to adhere to open industry standards to ensure success. The company has been working with the Cognitive Networking Alliance (CogNeA) — which was formed to help establish general specifications and industry-wide adoption of CogNeA as an industry-wide standard for low-power personal and portable wireless devices to operate over the newly available TV white spaces.

CogNeA’s chairman Kiran Challapali said that Cambridge Consultants has helped launch several new standards such as Bluetooth, DECT and Zigbee. The CogNeA includes CE companies like Philips and Samsung.

Cambridge is advertising the technology in the hopes of getting CE companies to include the InCognito platform into their respective consumer- and commercial-grade products.

D’Arcy said clients could add this “potentially low-cost” technology to a CE device in as little as a few months, and that the first cognitive radio-enabled products are expected in mid-2010.

“The way we see it, the FCC is really blazing a trail here, because there’s a lot of need for spectrum.” D’Arcy said. “Cognitive radios can coexist with TV broadcasters’ signals, and the unused spectrum should be put to its best use. I think we have outgrown the 2.4GHz spectrum, and it’s time to accommodate wireless products that bring new services to a wider demographic of people. That’s good for everybody — wireless provider and consumers.”