There is no shortage of wireless technologies that promise to reshape the business use of mobile communications: 3G, 802.11b, WiMax, Edge, CDMA…the list is as long as it is bewildering. So how can company IT and telecoms leaders ensure they do not gamble precious budget on a white elephant?
To date, mobile devices have been limited to the communication protocols that are hardwired into their internal processors. However, there may be a way of resolving this in future: software-defined radio. SDR is a concept that first emerged in the US military to enable the different armed forces – each of which used incompatible types of radio – to communicate using a single device.
SDR allows a general-purpose processor to operate at multiple frequency bands with multiple communications protocols, allowing a device to communicate using present and future protocols. The software layer defines which protocol is used at any time, so that the device would be capable of choosing between a WiMax, say, or a GPRS base station on the basis of available bandwidth.
Potentially, that means a single device could use any wireless communications protocol – even ones currently being developed – without requiring a hardware upgrade says Younes Souilmi, a research scientist at Accenture.
SDR is already being incorporated into some products. Last year, equipment maker Cisco Systems introduced 802.11a wireless LAN devices that could be upgraded, increasing network capacity as the bandwidth becomes available.
Further applications could include soft-upgrades to mobile base stations, says Accenture’s Souilmi. “One of the biggest costs with rolling out 3G has been building out base stations. With SDR you can just upgrade the software on existing stations.”
This may well attract the interest of mobile operators, especially as SDR technology could enable them to rollout as yet unthought-of technologies beyond 3G, with far less risk. Instead of having to bet heavily on a mobile technology, enhancements can be deployed easily and relatively cheaply. And the end user will benefit through having to pay less of a premium for innovation.
However, it is likely to be some time before the software makes its way on to handsets. Currently, it adds a power consumption premium, eating away at battery life and making for bulkier form factors, says Steve Jennis senior vice president of corporate development at communication middleware maker PrismTech. “However, we’re expecting handsets to follow a similar pattern to the cell phones: battery life will improve.”
This is a view also shared by analysts at Forrester Research, who predict the first commercial handsets will be available by 2010.
And SDR is already being incorporated into some products. Last year, network equipment titan Cisco Systems introduced 802.11a wireless LAN devices that could be upgraded, increasing network capacity as the bandwidth becomes available.