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Bye Bye Analogue

Analogue TV was turned off in Ireland today at 10am. I am in the USA so I missed it. I feel quite annoyed I was not there. Even though there would be nothing to see really. So I am saying ‘bye bye’ from here. And there is something nostalgic and poetic about Analogue that makes its passing somehow a little sad! Though of course having said that I am a firm believer that TV broadcasting is a literal waste of space – especially in countries with large cable penetration.

I do hope this is the start of something  new though.  By something I mean some serious use of TV White Space and some serious step towards sharing and more dynamic spectrum usage. TV White Space has moved from a research topic to a very firm development topic but there are still many who are not convinced of that so hence the need to get trials happening. [See White Spaces Ireland].

I was at IEEE DySPAN last week and one of the keynotes – Vanu Bose – made the comment, ‘ we have to get White Space right’ and advised that people in the USA should just get on with it and ignore the ‘spectre of the incentive auctions’.  I think he is right. At least in Europe we do not have that spectre.

A screen grab of our counter from – the analogue signal all gone.

White Spaces Ireland

We held an event called ‘Filling the White Spaces’ in the Science Gallery last week.  It focused on the fact that the Analogue TV signal in Ireland is being turned off on Oct 24th and we have oceans of spectrum here to ‘get it right’ and ‘do something great’.  See our counter here.

We have posted details of the event online. You can see slides, discussion notes and photos there.

The event was very well attended and in response to the interest , Tim Forde and myself have decided to create White Spaces Ireland.  As you will see from the website White Spaces Ireland aims

  1. To disseminate information about the latest advances in spectrum access techniques
  2. To foster white space trials within Ireland that will support innovation, identify commercial opportunities and assimilate evidence for policy development and legislation
  3. To promote Ireland as a Spectrum Playground
  4. To support the goal of providing all citizens, businesses, and institutions within Ireland with access to high-quality broadband so that Ireland can reach its full economic potential.

We are currently working with interested parties in beginning the process of identifying trial opportunities., which I have to say is very exciting. Though White Spaces Ireland is open to all, even those not planning to be involved in trials.

Analogue Switch-Off

October 24th is the date on which Ireland will turn off Analogue TV.  [See the CTVR count down to the momentous event!]  As most people know the term white space is used to refer to the chunks of spectrum that become free once the once the old TV signals are turned off. White Deserts rather than White Spaces may be more appropriate for us – as you can see from the images below. Note the measurements are taken in Dublin City Centre. Over the next few weeks we will be posting material here on this issue.  And of course we are having a Filling the White Spaces Event on September 26th for all those interested.

TV Antennas

CTVR is having a TV White Space Event on September 26th in the Science Gallery in Trinity. As most people will know  the switch off of analogue TV has led to opportunities for new services as the transition from analogue to more spectrally efficient digital television has resulted in additional white spaces becoming free.  In Ireland we have not, to date, really focused on this spectrum. Trials that use these TV white spaces have taken place in the UK and the USA and both Ofcom and the FCC have developed regulatory policies for using the bands. [Email to register your interest in attending]

The Filling the White Spaces workshop aims to inform the audience as to these opportunities by sharing the experiences of companies that have already conducted trials in the UK and USA (list of companies at the end of the post). It is about showing what’s out there already and trying to get things moving in Ireland. We will therefore be looking to identify opportunities for Irish exploitation of this new spectrum resource in the context of on-going global developments. We are framing this discussion around three questions —

1. Should we do a set of me-too trials just to get buy-in from the regulator and powers that be?
2. Should we look into new kinds of applications that might be relevant (for example on the Trinity Campus or in the Dublin City Centre) – and do this within FCC/Ofcom rules?
3.  Should we challenge the FCC/Ofcom rules and do something that is less conservative?

There will also be demos during the event.  The companies involved – see list below  – will be doing some – and CTVR will be doing some too. Our CTVR antenna team in DIT have created a special fun antenna for the event. It is an antenna in the shape of a TV (see the picture).  Ok – that is a little obvious.  But it makes me laugh. I am such a nerd.   Mathias John and Antonie Dumolin made the antenna.

In all seriousness the DIT Antenna Team, led by Prof Max Ammann,  are amazing.  They do all sorts of antennas and are particularly great at minaturising wideband antennas. Obviously making small antennas for the TV bands is very desirable given the frequencies. The antenna in the image uses some of their specific optimisaation techniques based on genetic algorithms.  The guys had done a full characteristion of the antenna and even turned up in CTVR headquaerters with polar plots of the antenna radioation pattern etc. I will post a full description of our demo after the event.

The companies which will be presenting at the event have a lot of expertise in the TV White Space and it will be great to hear the practical details of the trials. Hopefully the details will inspire action! BTW THE EVENT IS OPEN TO ALL.  Email to register your interest in attending.

Line up for the event –

Microsoft will present an overview of recent White Space regulatory developments, including highlights from the Cambridge White Spaces Trial. They will also discuss how TV White Spaces could be game-changing for improving broadband penetration and spurring economic development.

Neul is a UK-based company who have developed FCC and Ofcom-certified disruptive technology that uses White Space network which has been specifically designed to be ‘data only’ in order to support the explosive growth of wireless data, including M2M applications. Spectrum Bridge is a US company that offer a unique software platform that manages available bandwidth in real-time for licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

Spectrum Bridge’s ASA-based TV White Space platform was certified by the FCC as the first TV White Spaces database.

Adaptrum is a Silicon Valley based start-up that has developed a FCC-certified TV White Space radio which they have commercially trialled in the US demonstrating how this technology can help bring broadband service to underserved populations.

Fairspectrum is a Finnish company working in the field of spectrum sharing technology. They have recently deployed a TV White Space geolocation database which is used to control the licensing of cognitive radio devices operating in the 470 – 790 MHz frequency range.

Linger in the Prelinger

I recently visited a most amazing library in San Francisco. It is called the Prelinger Library. The Library was founded and built by Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger.  The library contains a collection of interesting material that as they say themselves falls between academic and public library.  I was particularly interested in their material on radio communications. Among their collection they also had some old Bell Labs Journals. I was really struck by the fact they contained fantastic information as well as being beautiful to look at. What ever happened to that approach to technical material? In fact a lot of the material at Prelinger has that kind of design bias which made it very interesting.  The Prelinger partners with the Internet Archive and provide material for that archive. They for example uploaded my favourite film- A Communications Primer to the Archive. Megan Prelinger has written an article here about building the library.


The Only Ones Who Will Drop Dead Are Those Who Stand Still.

Given my enthusiasm for the PCAST report on, ‘Realizing  the full potential of Government-held  spectrum to spur economic growth’, I feel obliged to comment on the CNET article – ‘Feds to Mobile Users: Drop Dead’. I have to give the author marks for his title. It really succinctly summarises what he feels the PCAST report is saying – but that is all I can give him marks for.

From what I read, the main gripe in the CNET article is that Mobile Operators (i.e. Carriers) feel hard done by. They are desperate for spectrum. The hope was that some of their spectrum needs would be filled by cleared Federal spectrum and now these hopes are dashed because the PCAST report has more or less made it clear that this is not the way to go. It is all about sharing now. And the real point of talking ‘sharing’  is to stall anyone getting access to the Federal spectrum. So we the mobile users will all suffer as a result. Not as succinct as ‘Feds to Mobile Users: Drop Dead’ but I think it captures the main gist of the article.

My overwhelming reaction to the article is that when it comes to spectrum management we have the problems we have because we do not think long-term enough.  And just so the CNET team are clear, thinking long-term does not mean simply using the word  ‘long-term’ in the actual name of the technology.

Let me deal with a few points. The following statement is taken from the CNET article (the new approach referred to is that advocated in the PCAST report) –

“Adoption of this radical new approach to spectrum management would utterly change a system that has been in place since the sinking of the Titanic, and which has in recent decades generated billions of dollars through license auctions.”

When the Titanic sank it was claimed that boats nearer to the sinking liner did not get the call for help due to all the radio interference that occurred. What followed was a focus on safety at sea and the beginning of radio regulations as we have known them for decades. And that is the nub of the issue. The regulations were designed and crafted based on an understanding of the technologies as they functioned at that time and not an understanding of what the technologies could be.  And ever since, except in some enlightened cases, we have been mired in technology specifics and the inputs to the system, rather than the behaviours we are seeking and the outputs we desire.

As a simple example from a European perspective, it took a long and drawn out battle to reallocate 2G spectrum to 3G technologies, even when  it as becoming clear that 2G was being superseded by 3G. Why? The use of the 2G spectrum was tightly coupled with the use of 2G technologies. The spectrum usage was not defined in a technology- neutral way or  in other words things had not changed since the Titanic! And as result many hurdles had to be overcome to allow the bands to be used for 3G.

How then can an industry that has already lost out to a Titanic world view shout in favour of this mindset?

The PCAST report captures, in my opinion, the essence of technology neutrality.

The focus on interference limits or spectrum usage rights is THE best way to truly  issue licenses that do not burden a service with the specifics of the technology used to deliver it. They do not restrict the options of the service provider as technologies progress. They open up options. Interference limits are about desired outputs of a system and not about defined technical inputs. If an implementation of the PCAST proposals edges the adoption of interference limits or spectrum usage rights  forward by a milimeter, it will be doing the world a favour.

And this point can be further strengthed by drawing on other observations made in the CNET article. As Downes points out  –

“While PCAST is to be commended for its vision of future technologies and their ability to make dramatic improvements in the efficiency of spectrum allocation, use, and minimization of interference, the kinds of technologies PCAST foresees simply don’t exist yet. We don’t know when they will come, and how well they will work. There is far too much uncertainty in technologies that “will likely mature” in the next decade to justify a complete rewrite of spectrum policy.”

He is right – we don’t know what is coming. It is uncertain. But he is wrong  to let this hold us back.

Of course there are a large number of outstanding technical issues which need to be addressed – at the regulator side and at the spectrum consumer side. And these are hugely challenging. But they should be. When regulating for the long-term it is important to allow the technical imagination go wild. It is important to speculate and conceive of things that are yet to come. Then it is essential to remove all traces of this future technical proposition from the picture.

And to my mind the PCAST report does that. In it, there is room for very static  technologies that just use spectrum in certain bands when it is free and possibly stay in those bands for long durations. But there is also room for completely dynamic cognitive systems that get assignments of spectrum on-the-fly and move to the next assignment for the next session. In it there is room for traditional commons-like behaviour as we already know (i.e. power limited behaviour) as well as room for new spectrum etiquette and different flavours of light-touch regulation. There is room to pay for spectrum and room for free options. There is room for exclusivity and for inclusivity.

And while Downes states that

“Over the last two years, spectrum “sharing” has become code among federal authorities to stall for more time.”

I argue,  that it is the sharing itself that is the scary thing and far from a stall tactic. It is the beginning of the end of what we know today for incumbents and legacy systems. It is the beginning of a true opening up of the spectrum and that means opening to many more than the traditional operators.

And while much of the article focuses on the huge data demand and the need for speedy access of spectrum, there is in my mind no evidence that clearing would be any faster. But more importantly it would involve a piecemeal approach (more of the same short-sightedness) and not the systematic rethinking advocated in the PCAST report.

I think it is very apt that the image of the Titanic was evoked in the article as to me the Mobile Operator or Carrier as we currently know and understand it is  somewhat of a sinking ship. In many areas of the world current business models are unsustainable. But the Carrier who embraces the opportunity and who looks at the proposals as means of expanding its reach, thinking about new topologies, embracing new ownership models, understanding new modes of collaborative consumption will not go down. This is an additional opportunity – not a taking away.

Of course there are many challenges and loads to answer. But the PCAST report is about moving forward and it is only those who stand still that will drop dead!


PCAST: Re-casting the Future

I am one of those people people who tends to get either over-enthusiastic about or dead-against things in general. I have to say I am on the side of ‘wildly enthusiastic about’ the PCAST REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT REALIZING THE FULL POTENTIAL OF GOVERNMENT-HELD SPECTRUM TO SPUR ECONOMIC GROWTH.  I am not well versed enough in American politics to be able to comment on whether this report will get anywhere and actually be implemented. Some of the random comments I read online suggesting it smacks of communism makes me feel there might be a few issues! But  I have no real feeling for how it might pan out. That aside, I think there is much worth noting. What follows are a few of the many points that could be made.

  • While not a new point the report underscores the fact that it is our spectrum management practices that ‘mange spectrum into scarcity‘. I think this can never be emphasised enough. A phrase we use here in CTVR is ‘managing into abundance’ and I think the proposals here head in this direction.
  • The report comes up with a set of behaviours that will govern how spectrum is accessed over the entire 1000 MHz of interest rather than thinking about individual services or bands. A whole swathe of spectrum is therefore  considered in a completely systematic way rather than the typical piece-meal fashion we tend to do things around the world. This is very important and long overdue.
  • Three tiers of access to spectrum are suggested. The report talks about Federal Primary Access, Secondary Access and General Authorized Access. One of my favourite sentences is, ‘ Federal Primary Access should be an exclusive right to actual use, but not an exclusive right to preclude use by other Federal or private sector users‘.  Hence when the Federal users are not availing of the spectrum, other users get access in different ways and with different priorities.  I find it helpful to broadly think of  the three tiers as exclusive use, exclusive sharing and non-exclusive sharing.  I think this is a very effective way of organizing access. And from what I read they seem to have thought through the different tiers in quite a comprehensive way.
  • There is an explicit acknowledgement that spectrum access can be authorised on multiple time scales from decades to on-the-fly access.  It is extremely important to see this kind of thinking embedded into manage processes.
  • There is a major acknowledgement that the receiver is a key part of the picture. The report speaks about defining interference limits which as far as I can see akin to the Ofcom  Spectrum Usage Rights  (SUR) approach. Interference  limits would be defined in cases where receivers can expect protection (Federal Primary Access users and Secondary Access users but NOT for General Authorised Access users for example).  The use of interference limits or SURs or some kind of receiver-centric licensing approach, should in my opinion be the licensing approach for all systems in the future so I was particularly happy to see this. The importance of knowing receiver characteristics in spectrum management is also stressed. I think there are many interesting self-profile/self-awareness/cognitive radio opportunities here.
  • The idea of a Test City is suggested.  This sounds exciting.

It is of course true to say the the devil may be in the detail and of course all of this could be implemented in a highly conservative and restrictive way. For example TV white space databases can use highly conservative propagation models which make spectrum appear less empty and pander to the incumbents. However I think the principles are heading in the right direction.

For me there are  number of key conclusions.

The first is that I think this framework is suitable for ALL SPECTRUM  MANAGEMENT.  Federal Users are a defined group of users over which there is an entity that has authority. Commercial incumbents across the globe or actually even in individual countries do not fall into this category.  Hence there is not an easy way to change the current licenses and order commercial users to behave in new ways. However there are ways to begin to make this happen. I am going to do a blog post on one way of doing this rather than go in to details here.

My second key conclusion is Europe-centric. I feel a crisis coming on … ok what is new here? We are all in constant crisis in this part of the world.  What I am alluding to here is the fact we are long past the glory days of GSM and not world leaders in mobile communications any more. Should the USA truly embrace what is in the PCAST report and not in a limited and conservative way, we might as well turn out the lights unless we adopt bold new ideas here too. There are moves to look at new spectrum regimes and embrace sharing but they are not fast enough.

Finally – all of this is music to the ears of those interested in adaptive, reconfigurable wireless systems, proper dynamic spectrum access, self-aware radios, cognitive techniques, collaborative systems etc. etc etc.

Fighting for Fibre

I went to hear Susan Crawford speak at the Science Gallery last night. Susan is the Visiting Stanton Professor of the First Amendment in Harvard .  She is a member of Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC Council on Technology and Innovation. She also served as Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy to President Obama  in 2009 and co-led the FCC transition team between the Bush and Obama administrations.

Her talk was all about the need for fibre to the home. She made the point that the USA and countries like Ireland are behind and will continue to behind unless we take this step. Her main points centred around the fact that this cannot happen without the right policies & legislation and involvement from Government. She likened  the introduction of fibre to the home to electrification which seemed to really strike a chord with the audience.  I particularly liked her phrase ‘equal creativity‘ when she spoke about equal upload and download speeds being possible with fibre.

I could not agree more.  We need to go to fibre to the home.  That is why is is particularly disheartening to see articles like BT: Not all of the UK needs full fibre broadband in zdnet his week.  BT makes the point that the cost involved in a fibre-to-the-premises rollout for all UK residences is unnecessary as existing technologies can be extended for faster download speeds in the future.

The simple point is that the cost of not doing this is far greater.

Apart from the fact it should never be part of a  national strategy to purposefully create a two-tiered society (those who have FTTH and those who do not), history is littered with stories of experts making the claim that ‘people will never need more capacity than X’.  While there are issues around the business and pricing models around broadband in general, making the excuse that we only need capacity X is short-sighted. I go back also here to Susan’s comments on equal creativity. FTTH is an enabler of things to come and in my opinion is not just about dimensioning for capacity based on our current understanding and the current limits of our imagination.

Of course it is important (and this is where the technology side of me comes in) to put the ‘right’ FTTH network in place.

In CTVR we look at both wireless and optical networks. I come from the wireless side so the optical world has been a steep learning curve for me over the past number of years. My colleagues Marco Ruffini and Dave Payne have educated me a lot on this topic.

In our world view we are looking at long reach passive optical networks (LR-PON) in the access and a flat core. One immediate consequence of a long-reach access is that the metro network that is commonly used to interconnect access and core networks becomes superfluous, and can be eliminated. This greatly reduces the amount of equipment in the network as a whole and the energy costs associated with it.  This removes the bottleneck (both from a technological and economical viewpoint) due to electronic processing at the local exchange site or central office and metro network transmission systems. Applied to the core network our approach leads to the concept of a flat all-optical core, which again will considerably reduce the need for expensive and power-hungry electronic routers.

Since the user connects via a fibre straight to the core, the core boundary can be eliminated and any network port can offer a direct access to the core. Such ubiquitous high bandwidth access leads to a scenario where no privileged point of connection to the network exists and all access connections deliver the same bandwidth and service capability to all types of users, including service providers. We call this the Principle of Equivalence. In reality it means that wherever you are you can build a business, get the connectivity you need.  It is a further means of embodying equal creativity into the network in my opinion!

Critical Engineering

Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev are here in CTVR to do a week long NETWorkshop as part of the openhere festival we are hosting. The first day of the workshop was held today and I got to hear them talk about some of their very amazing work.

There is too much to say about these artists in one post. So I am just picking out a few things.

The guys have a Critical Engineering Manifesto which underpins their work. The Manifesto sums up the responsibilities of  and the opportunities for the Critical Engineer and it would, in my opinion, be no harm for this manifesto to underpin undergraduate and postgraduate engineering studies. I also think it offers a way of thinking about Engineering that opens up the world through bringing a level of excitement and responsibility to the role that would go a long way in attracting more interest. Certainly here in Ireland we see dwindling numbers of people choosing Engineering as an option – and I do think if only more people could see Julian and Danja at work that this would be different.

As an aside, I would make one addition to the Manifesto. Though it implicitly captures the notion of power relationships within a technology or system, I would add another line to the manifesto that makes this more explicit — ‘the critical engineer seeks to understand the power structures/relationships that are inherent in any technology or system and within his/her own designs‘.

Julian and Danja spoke about a number of different pieces of their own work (and some work by others) as a means of introducing networked concepts.

The showed us their new book which is an archive of a show the Weise 7 Studio show for Labor Berlin 8. It looks like a regular normal book – it is beautifully designed. When you open it, the first few pages are normal paper pages and then a few pages in you see that carved into the book is a circuit – in fact some kind of wireless server. When the book is open, this turns on and people in the vicinity can read the book on any electronic device that can wirelessly connect to the book. Readers are disconnected when the book is closed. It is beautiful and wonderful.

Archive server

Julian spoke about his Transparency Grenade project. This physical object is detonated by pulling a pin as in any grenade. Here detonation makes the device suck in any network traffic and audio from the location in which it is detonated.  Subsequently this material is displayed on an online map indicating the location at which it was gathered.

They also spoke about a fantastic project called Men in Grey – this is a performance piece in which Julian and Danja present themselves as on the `right side of the law’ and set out to monitor what people are doing online. The guys dress up as unidentifiable bureaucrats, carrying briefcases filled  with hardware and software that can access traffic on any open wireless network. The material they access is displayed on the outside of the briefcases as they walk through the streets and cafes in which they encounter these open networks, often to the horror and dismay of those online in the vicinity. Julian and Danja in this way work on the fears and anxieties of those around them by exposing the insecure nature of the networks we use

There are many more pieces to talk about. What seems to be amazing about all of their work is the mix of well thought- out concepts, intriguing twists and excellent technical implementations.