First software-defined radio approved

A technology that could transform wireless communications got a boost on Friday when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its first approval of a software-defined radio.

The Vanu Software Radio GSM Base Station from Vanu can support multiple cellular technologies and frequencies at the same time and can be modified in the future without any hardware changes, according to Vanu Chief Executive Officer Vanu Bose. Software-defined radios like Vanu's could lower costs and provide new flexibility in wireless networks, IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi said Friday.

Traditional radios are hardware components built for a particular frequency range, modulation type and output power. Software-defined radios (SDRs) consist of a flexible radio controlled by software running on a computer or device. The concept goes beyond cellular base stations to other types of radios, such as handheld devices that can switch from one network to another to suit a particular application or environment.

The FCC applauded the technology in a Friday statement on the approval. Software-defined radios can help users share limited airspace and prevent interference, the FCC said.

Vanu's GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) base station is a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant server running Linux, coupled with an ADC Telecommunications Digivance radio subsystem. Using an off-the-shelf server and standard operating system allows Vanu to ride the declining cost curve for processing power, Bose said. Though the price of the current product is close to that of conventional base stations, according to Bose, the equation is expected to change.

"It is going to change the entire cost structure over time," IDC's Bakhshi said. In fact, the new approach is so revolutionary that it's hard to know what benefits will come of it, he said, comparing it to the change from analog to digital cellular networks. Though large operators will not make the switch quickly from their conventional radio networks, some have signaled interest in the technology, Bakhshi said. Cingular Wireless, Orange PCS and NTT DoCoMo all are members of the SDR Forum industry group, along with Intel, Motorola and other infrastructure companies.

Vanu, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is first targeting small, rural operators, Bose said. Those carriers want to support multiple cellular technologies so they can secure roaming agreements with more than one major operator, he said. Software-defined radios let them do that without investing in new hardware each time they add a new technology. For customers of the major operators, that should mean better coverage, Bose said. Vanu launched a trial with Mid-Tex Cellular last year and is now installing its base stations on the operator's network. Bose believes the company is two years away from a direct sale to a top-tier U.S. carrier.

The FCC was supportive during the approval process, according to Bose. Its main concern was ensuring that software-defined radios don't cause harmful interference, he said.

Outside the U.S., software-defined radios could be a boon to mobile operators in less-developed countries, Bose said. The technology provides the flexibility to combine different grades of hardware and software to strike the right balance between cost and network resiliency. Most cellular systems today ensure 99.999 percent, or "five nines," reliability, he said.

"For certain areas, such as rural or developing areas, five nines is overkill because it prices the network right out of the market," Bose said. "Now they can make a choice."

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