Download Your Phone
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Jul 10 00:00:00 GMT 2003

New technology could let you download a software patch to change your phone from TDMA to GSM, upgrade to 2.5G, or even to turn it into an MP3 player. So what's holding it back?

It's an all too common dilemma. You've been eyeing that new phone for a while now, but you just heard that another one, with a digital camera, is about to be released - and you're not sure if it'll run on your network anyway. Then, as soon as you resolve your questions about that model, yet another appears on the horizon, and you're faced with the same decision all over again.

With networks constantly being upgraded worldwide, the number of standards in use will only increase in the years to come - and as mobile device continue to do more and more things, each new phone will only become obsolete all the faster.

Still, there may be an alternative to replacing your phone every month or two.

The concept is called software radio. Joseph Mitola III, now a consulting scientist with the MITRE Corporation, coined the term in 1991 to describe wireless devices that perform signal processing using software instead of hardware. Think of it as running a phone like a PC - on software that can be easily changed, rather than on dedicated hardware.

A number of companies are now exploring commercial applications for software defined radio (SDR) technology. By looking at mobile phones the way we're used to looking at PCs, these companies are opening up enormous possibilities for wireless communication.

The Power toChange

Vanu Bose, CEO of the SDR company Vanu, Inc., explains that it isn't yet possible to give mobile devices the flexibility of software radios - simply because of battery life. "Power issues are the real limitation today," Bose said. "To do everything in software takes more power than to do it in an ASIC, which is the way cell phones are built today."

Bose says it should be about three to five years before a truly competitive SDR handset is available on the market. In the meantime, his company is looking at such goals as emergency services, military uses, and mobile phone base stations-applications that don't need to be able to run on a battery for days at a time. "They're less power-sensitive, and they're good targets today," he said.

In a police car or an ambulance, devices can be run from the vehicle's power supply - and Bose says emergency services are an ideal market. "They have a terrible interoperability problem, which is always highlighted at a disaster when 20 or 30 agencies show up and none of them can talk to each other," he said. "Software radios can help solve their problem by creating virtual patches between any two systems."

The U.S. Army has been exploring SDR technology for well over a decade, currently with the Joint Tactical Radio System project. In Grenada in 1983, Marines and Army Rangers, using different radio frequencies, had to resort to calling the United States on pay phones in order to relay messages to each other: ever since then, flexible wireless communication has been a significant priority.

And Bose points out that SDR technology is an ideal solution for mobile phone base stations, particularly as carriers migrate from one standard to another. "If you get a TDMA call, you start up a software process that handles a TDMA call; if you get a GSM call, you start up a software process for a GSM call," he said. "You don't have to waste resources, and you can fill up your capacity optimally."

Still, John Watson, Vice President of Marketing at the SDR company QuickSilver Technology, says the real challenge lies with mobile phones. "In the base station market, you can just cram enough silicon on there to get something that looks like it's software-defined," he said. "The issue is to try to put that in a handset."

TheFlexible Phone

The advantages of building a software-based phone, Watson points out, are all but limitless. "I could sell a phone to somebody as a TDMA phone, but if they go roaming anywhere, I could change it instantly to a CDMA phone, a GSM phone, or who cares," he said. "More radically, forget the phone: I can turn it into an MP3 player."

As a result, devices built with SDR technology could stay at the leading edge of consumer demand even after services are introduced that weren't anticipated when the devices were built. "It literally means that you can build a cell phone, and you don't have to know what it's going to need when you build it, because you can define it later by just downloading software," Watson said.

Bose points out that the most obvious advantage of SDR technology lies in the ability to switch seamlessly between standards, either as an upgrade or for travel, without having to replace hardware. "You could upgrade easily, say, from CDMA to 1xRTT-or you could have a CDMA phone that you could also use as a GSM phone when you're in Europe," he said.

Similarly, such flexibility could greatly increase the number of different networks you can connect to on a daily basis. "Imagine that you're in the office and you connect to your LAN, you connect to a cellular data network while you're driving home, and at home to your local cordless phone system," Bose said.

Watson says the ability to add new functionality to a phone is another great asset, particularly in terms of potential profit. "Let's say you had a handset, you sold it to a customer, and you could then change their handset into an MP3 player," he said. "You do that by downloading software, which costs you nothing, but what if you charged 20 bucks to do it? That's 20 dollars of pure profit you never had before."

Think ringtone downloads are popular? Imagine being able to download the latest gadget from your carrier's web site as soon as it's introduced, at a tiny fraction of the cost of new hardware-and an MP3 player is just the beginning. "There's a thousand things you could turn a handset into, all with high profit margins," Watson said.

Finally, Mark Cummings, CEO of the SDR company enVia, points out that a reduction in risk for the manufacturer may be the technology's greatest strength. "When there's a code problem in a handset device, there's no way to download new code to it-so they have to recall all the devices," he said. "Something that's more flexible could be very valuable in that situation."

Making itLast

Still, will manufacturers be willing to consider something that could greatly decrease the replacement market? Cummings contends that they will-and he points to a strong precedent. "We have upgrade paths with PCs, with operating systems and applications-but there's still a healthy replacement market," he said. "People buy new devices for lots of reasons, and they still will."

Bose admits that many carriers have trouble seeing the benefit at first. "Service providers are worried that a software phone would enable churn," he said. "What's to keep me from buying my phone subsidized from Sprint, then downloading AT&T's software to run the phone? But the truth is that providers control the phone, and they can control the software than runs on it."

Once carriers understand that they're in control, Cummings says, they'll realize that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. "Carriers want to have carrier-loyal phones," he said. "They would like to have a phone that could always stay on their network, instead of having to roam on a competitor's network when you go from city to suburb, just because they don't have the same air interface standard," he said.

Similarly, he says, device manufacturers have a lot to gain from such simple flexibility. "Manufacturers would like to be able to hang a device on a hook in any retail outlet anywhere in the world," Cummings said. "Imagine a flexible device that you could just turn on, see what services were available in your area, and sign up with a carrier. Manufacturers could sell a lot more devices."

Ultimately, Cummings says, it's all about looking at a phone the same way you look at your desktop computer. "There's a big advantage to being able to follow something a lot closer to the PC model, to have a standard hardware platform to which you can just add different software," he said. "Everybody in the value chain can benefit from this."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.