Winners and Losers: A Wireless Winner

Will software soon replace hardware to interpret radio signals? If and when that happens, we could be using universal wireless devices that seamlessly handle a range of frequencies, modulation techniques, and encoding schemes. In "Winner: Radio Revolutionaries", Senior Editor Jean Kumagai writes that this breakthrough could make all current cellphones and wireless devices obsolete.

Kumagai notes that this revolutionary technology is not quite ready for prime time but that recent developments are bringing its promise closer to reality. The benefits would be enormous. A cellphone based on software-defined radio would be lighter, smaller, cheaper, and more power efficient, she states. It would also be better at making calls: instead of being stuck with one frequency or even one cellular carrier, it would automatically search out the best and least expensive way of connecting. Plus, equipment makers wouldn't need to overhaul their products to fit every new telecommunications standard. Wireless providers would be able to roll out new services easily and troubleshoot technical glitches with a simple download.

Firms such as Vanu, of Cambridge, Mass., Kumagai writes, are making software-defined radio an exciting alternative to traditional wireless service. The leader of Vanu told Kumagai that this year it will begin selling the first cellular base station that can simultaneously process two waveforms—CDMA (code division multiple access) and GSM (global system for mobile communications)—all in software running on off-the-shelf computer servers.

Software-defined radio sounds like a big leap, but that's just what happened in the computer industry 20 some years ago, when Digital Equipment Corp., International Business Machines, and other giants began giving way to upstarts like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, Kumagai concludes. Stand by for the next call from the future.

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