Digital data. We all love it. We all rely on it. Streamed television, connected home appliances, satellite channels, Internet everywhere, video calls, location services, social feeds and, of course, pictures of Kim’s new buttocks. We’re constantly hungry for more. There’s an invisible tsunami of digital data and pixel maelstroms all around us. And the number of connected devices demanding IoT access is projected to grow from 10 billion in 2013 to 30 billion in 2020.¹ So how can we avoid a massive data ‘car crash’ on what was once called the ‘super highway’?
Well, it all comes down to wavelengths and frequencies. Who has the rights to use them and for what. But first a brief history lesson on who discovered this amazing unseen world.
Welcome to the late 1880’s and 1890’s, a crazy time for inventors. First Heinrich Rudolf Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, using a frequency later called the ‘radio spectrum’. Guglielmo Marconi used wireless telegraphy to create the first commercial radio transmission which is credited with saving 700 people on the Titanic.² Whilst Nikola Tesla pioneered wireless technology. His radio controlled boat caused such disbelief other scientists dived into the water looking for hidden wires,³ others believed it was controlled by a trained monkey hidden inside.⁴ Yet, it was James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1864 kicked it all off. Without his theory that electromagnetic waves could travel through the air we might never have had Facebook, Amazon, Netflix or Google. Today his name is largely forgotten. Although he did have an audio tape brand named after him.
You’d think regulating global telecoms was a 21st century issue. Wrong. The first regulatory body was set up in 1865. Called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the ‘T’ originally stood for ‘telegraph’ back then, ⁵ it still exists today. In fact, it’s the oldest international body in the world. Based in Switzerland and overseen by the United Nations, it ‘co-ordinates regulations and standards for global broadcast technologies and electronic communication services’. Both on Earth and in space. The ITU allocates specific uses for each frequency. TV on one. Radio on another. Mobile data on another. In the interest of avoiding a frequency ‘free-for-all’, countries who are ITU members respect the applications each frequency is to be used for. Which is good. As anyone who remembers the chaos of pirate radio stations hijacking the airwaves in the 60’s, would not want that to happen in today’s telecoms dependent world. Imagine, you turn on Sky Atlantic on your TV only for your fridge to order 30 extra cartons of milk.
Hardly surprisingly that today choosing the right frequency for your service is more important than ever. And more complex. Here’s just a few things connectivity innovators like Hiber have to consider. Is the signal affected by bad weather? Will it go through forests and jungles? Can it carry lots of data? Is the wavelength small enough to create compact devices? Does it need a lot of power? And finally, does anyone else have the first option to use the frequency you want? After all, a great idea is pretty worthless if you can’t execute it.
Frequencies are not something any individual corporation owns. Instead, countries have to file for use of a specific frequency with the ITU, who grants rights to use a specific spectrum usually on behalf of a national company or institution like a university. This provides a safeguard in case any company who has the license to use a frequency, goes bankrupt or stops using it. Should this happen, the country then has the option to hand it to another company or institution for use. This is in the interests of everyone and ensures the proper use of spectrum.
What’s important is being first or having ‘priority on that frequency’.Otherwise, as a newcomer to the frequency, you have to co-ordinate with those already using it. Or, worse case scenario, the frequency is full and you can’t get your application live. For innovators like Hiber, having priority and being granted the rights to use a specific spectrum is key to full global IoT connectivity. It creates a huge technological and commercial advantage plus security for future users.
Launching nano satellites into orbit on a SpaceX rocket is pretty exciting. When you start talking ‘frequencies’, that can be a party killer. But without frequencies, all that fuel, reusable space tech, gigantic plumes in the Hollywood sky and a convertible Tesla car in space would just be a $billion vanity firework display. Frequencies are where it really happens.
So what is a ‘frequency’ and what makes one frequency more desirable than any other? (Anyone working in a telecoms tech department, feel free to go grab a coffee for the next few paragraphs.)
‘Frequency’ is how often a radio wave occurs and has a reciprocal relationship with the length of the radio wave. For example, at a higher frequency the wavelength is shorter. At a lower frequency the wavelength is longer. ‘Wavelength’ is literally the length of the radio wave, hence the phrase. The terms long wave, medium wave and short wave radio all come from this. It’s worth remembering that the length of the wavelength also dictates the length of the radio antenna needed. So VHF, which has a 2 metre wavelength needs a larger antenna than a frequency with a metre wavelength. Simples.
In the early days of radio, wavelengths were defined in metres. This was because early radio equipment was pretty rudimentary even being affected by the temperature of the radio itself. However, as equipment improved, precise control became possible allowing signals to be calibrated by frequency. This proved much more practical and by the 1920s became the standard method of identifying a signal, especially in the United States. In 1965, frequencies were further refined by the more precise designation of the number of cycles per second known as hertz. Which is what we all use today.
Finally, there is the ‘spectrum’. This a range of frequencies bundled together by the ITU. Usually because they usually have a specific use. Such as VHF for FM radio and television broadcasts.
Using a regulated frequency isn’t as simple as ‘transmit and go’. We rely on frequencies for so much that the ITU rigorously checks all applications. Primarily that the spectrum you want is compatible and doesn’t interfere with existing or potential future uses. Be it for home TV, car radio, mobile phone voice or data. And just because you want to use that frequency doesn’t mean that you can. The ITU operates a priority ’first come, first served’ approach. The first country who files, often on behalf of a company, has priority to use that frequency and everyone who files later, has to coordinate with them before using the frequency. Great you think, just prioritise everything. Well, in spirit of fairplay, ‘if you don’t use it you loose it’ and the next in the queue gets priority. As much as companies might want to, they can’t shut everyone else out of a chosen spectrum. However, if you are first to market you have a huge commercial advantage.
So you’ve got priority, what’s next? Well, to send or receive transmissions, or sometimes even both, most countries have their own national, regional and local regulations and laws to follow. This is known as ‘market access’. Which can be a very time-consuming process as a license from each individual country is often needed. Currently over 200 countries require market access approval before allowing transmission to a service. Ouch! This is so each market can validate that you don’t interfere with others. Only then will you be given full ‘market access’ and be allowed to operate commercially. Makes getting a man on the moon seem relatively straightforward.
But what happens if you have a great idea for a spectrum already in use? Well, that is where leasing comes in. If a company has no spectrum, they sometimes ‘lease’ it from someone who does. However, this can have serious downsides. It will probably be more expensive. Getting a long-term fixed price deal really doesn’t happen. It’s business after all. There’s also uncertainty over future proofing a service. What if the company leasing it wants to use it themselves or lease it to someone who pays more? Again, best have priority.
What we’ve highlighted in this section is only part of the 2,000+ pages of regulations that have to be followed. As you can begin to appreciate, getting a frequency ‘live’ for a new service takes a huge amount of commitment, innovation and due diligence. Firstly, the frequency must deliver the right reach, power-use and bandwidth. Then there are endless regulations and laws to abide by at international and local level. Not to mention, will the devices and applications that use the frequency be easy to use and affordable. And once you’ve figured all that out you need to be first to market and have priority. It is challenging enough for big corporates to do this, let alone an innovative start-up like Hiber. But in just 3 years Hiber has done just that. Infact, the 400Mhz frequency Hiberband uses might very well become the official spectrum for lower power IoT connectivity.
After S-band and L-band maybe there could be the ‘Hiber-band’.
That would really highlight how life changing Hiberband is for everyone on our beautiful blue planet.
There are many factors involved in choosing the right frequency for IoT users. Every frequency is a bit of a compromise or trade-off. The quality of signal, power use, ability to scale and be future proof, cost to access frequency, and cost to develop and build devices are just a few. Plus governments, NGO’s, global corporations and national businesses want the reassurance and security of dealing with service that is robust and proven. Which is even more important when going into partnership with a challenger in the marketplace like Hiber.
Hiber’s vision is to provide easy-to-use, low-cost and low-power connectivity to the IoT for everyone on Earth. To enable entire industries such as logistics, agriculture and fisheries to function more effectively, improving the lives and livelihoods of people globally, especially emerging economies. Be that in the darkest jungle, busiest city, remotest ocean, highest mountain, polar wastes or, as they often like to say, your Mom’s backyard. To execute this vision, Hiber has launched a dedicated nano satellite network named Hiberband.
Already there are two satellites in orbit and Alpha tests have started. Meaning Hiberband will soon be a reality. Amazingly, this has been achieved in under three years.
Key to Hiber’s success is having priority on a frequency. Within the first week of founding the company in June 2016, Hiber filed its advance publication for the intended use of the Hiberband frequencies. Yes, the first week, that’s when most companies are only just choosing their new office furniture. Six months later a comprehensive network application was presented for ITU approval.
Today, Hiber has secured a key position in the UHF frequency, namely 400MHz (399.9–401MHz). It’s a great frequency for easy and affordable access to IoT connectivity. To encourage pioneers of all sizes and nationalities to develop new IoT applications, Hiber have even created their own low cost antenna for use with 400Mhz. Making previously unimagined solutions possible. From monitoring fishing fleets across the Indonesian ocean to controlling irrigation of coffee crops in Africa. Managing underground water wells in Australia’s outback to tracking remote railcars across America. Even following an Antarctica exploration. And, as more and more core markets allow access to Hiberband, the dream of affordable IoT access for anyone, anywhere is set to become a reality.
That’s no small step for telecoms and mankind.
Hiber is a Dutch-based company with headquarters in Amsterdam and research facility in Delft. It also operates out of Maryland, USA. In late 2018 it successfully launched its first two nano satellites from India and California. It was also voted the Amazon Web Services Commercial Start-Up Launch of the Year, 2018. (Previous winners include Netflix, Pinterest and AirBnB.)
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