FCC Gives the Nod To Software-Defined Radio
By Carlo Longino, Mon Nov 22 20:00:00 GMT 2004

One radio, many protocols -- the premise of software-defined radio is a tasty one indeed. Now the FCC has given its first approval to an SDR product.

Software-defined radio offers an attractive capability: to have one device that can use software to control its radio to adapt to and work with many different flavors of technologies and frequencies. The first commercial product to use the technology, the Vanu Software Radio GSM Base Station, has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, after the device's manufacturers proved it wouldn't cause interference and couldn't be modified to operate outside its specified parameters.

Vanu is first targeting rural operators with its base station, which would enable them to run networks operating on multiple standards and sign roaming deals with multiple operators, regardless of the standard their networks use. But it also says that SDR products could cause large-scale changes in the network infrastructure business, particularly for developing markets where operators could use it to combine different types of hardware to find the most cost-effective combination. With this in mind, Vanu's base station uses an HP Linux server and a standard-agnostic radio system, and its current price is near that of conventional base stations, but using the Linux server means that reductions in the cost of computing power will lower the cost of the base station.

While most of the speculation involving SDR revolves around end-user devices (like downloading a new profile for your radio when traveling to an area whose networks run on different frequencies or standards, or adding Wi-Fi support with just a download), it can also have significant benefits in the infrastructure area, allowing operators to combine different types of networks and different frequencies in one piece of equipment.

There's been speculation over whether SDR can really fulfill all its imagined uses, and if it can keep pace with the ever-growing number of communications standards in use. The real trick will be if the software-defined radio in a device can not only handle multiple radio flavors, but support them all at the same time -- if, for instance, it can maintain a cellular call and transmit that to a Bluetooth headset while a user looks up the Web over a Wi-Fi connection.

While SDR is a gigantic leap forward for radio technology, integrating all those different standards, and making them work together, is a very complex challenge. But it's another one of those things that users won't necessarily care about -- they're only interested in having a device that "just works". They're not concerned with standards and different types of radios, just that their devices to always work at a high level of quality and provide them access to all the services to which they're accustomed. SDR's promise in delivering on this ensures it will remain a hot topic for a while yet.