Software-Defined Radios: New Wave for Mobile Use

FCC policy could open door to multifunction wireless device.

Moores Law and potential changes in Federal Communications Commission policy likely mean that companies will see the day—sooner rather than later—when a single, multifunction wireless device replaces the sundry gadgets now carried by mobile workers.

Earlier this month, the FCCs Spectrum Policy Task Force recommended rule changes to include time—in addition to frequency and power—when deciding how radio bandwidth is used. Software-defined radios on the drawing boards today could use these rule changes, and ever-increasing processor capability, to combine the functions of pagers and mobile and cordless phones into a single device. These devices can operate around the world by adapting to each countrys regulatory idiosyncrasies.

Software-defined radios can be re-configured on the fly to work cooperatively. This means applications similar to grid computing software can be implemented. For example, cell phone handsets could leapfrog one another back to a base station, boosting coverage areas. In the same scenario, the phones close proximity might mean less power is needed to transmit, thereby extending battery life.

Technology being developed at Vanu Inc. and other companies may make it possible for service providers to roll out features and services via software instead of also having to roll out new hardware. Digital-signal processing is moved off application-specific integrated circuits and into software. This is where the continued upward motion of Moores Law (processor power doubles every 18 months) comes in.

IT managers should start becoming familiar with software-defined radio technology. The SDR Forum is a good place to begin. The group publishes white papers and a primer on software-defined radio technology. The Open Mobile Alliance is another useful industry-sponsored site.

Software-defined radio technologys potential for improving productivity and cutting costs (in terms of equipment expenditures) are compelling. The technology could make it possible for a global organization to issue one standard handheld device that serves as the only telephone, personal digital assistant and Web browser that mobile workers need, regardless of their location.

Standing in the way of all this progress are two old IT bugaboos: security and standards—or the lack thereof. Securely configuring mobile devices via instructions received in the air is a pressing problem. IT managers should consider how mobile wireless devices could be included in a centralized security system.

Luckily, standards are beginning to evolve. The Open Mobile Alliance could have a synergistic effect: Its much easier to imagine the development of a "killer" voice-over-IP application if it is delivered economically and consistently over a single device.

Here are the main characteristics of software-defined radios

  • Provide software control of modulation techniques, wide- or narrow-band operation, security, and waveforms
  • Are a general-use radio technology that enables common applications such as telephone communication, text messaging and Web browsing on a single, wireless device that can be re-configured automatically
  • Enable a single device to span global wireless standards for use anywhere in the world

Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be contacted at