Five years ago, the wireless industry was talking about the projected benefits of software-defined radio (SDR). Today, SDR products are emerging in virtually every sector of the communications industry. Encouraged by the Pentagon's Joint Tactical Radio System Joint Program Office (JTRS JPO) to adopt the SDR software architecture as a Department of Defense-wide operating system, major military equipment providers are developing and promoting SDRs.
Commercially, SDR is already being used in some cellular and PCS basestation equipment. Most radio manufacturers believe the next big market will be the public safety sector, particularly first responders, such as fire, ambulance, and law enforcement organizations that historically could only communicate only within their own agency. This was particularly stressful during the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City terrorist attacks, when local police could not communicate directly with the fire department, and the fire department couldn't talk directly to ambulance crews.
So what's the advantage of SDR radios? SDR-enabled devices, such as handheld radios, can be dynamically programmed in software to reconfigure the characteristics of virtually any communications equipment. In other words, a wireless handset can be programmed in software to operate on different frequency bands, providing users with interoperable radios.
Under current regulations, updated in 2004, different versions of IEEE 802.11-standard radios can be upgraded by the user to the new 5.4-GHz band or the 4.9-GHz band. To help monitor this transition, the SDR Forum appointed its first chief technical officer (CTO)—Lee Pucker, the CTO of Spectrum Signal Processing Inc., of Burnaby, B.C., Canada.
"A wealth of software and hardware technologies and services is needed in the first responder market," says Steve Tobin, an industry analyst for market researcher Frost & Sullivan. "For the first time in decades, public and private organizations are focusing their efforts in this area, providing tremendous growth opportunity for companies, supplying the first responder market."
To further improve the technology, the SDR Forum's Technical Committee is working on several fronts. These include improving and developing cognitive, or so-called "smart," radio technologies. These devices can sense the RF environment and avoid interference without disrupting other voice or data traffic. Committee members are looking at third-generation (3G) waveforms, networks, and smart antennas as well.
The SDR Forum also is working with the 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) Mobile Station Application Execution Environment (MExE) Working Group, the IEEE, the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), and other industry groups to resolve SDR-specific electronic encryption issues in mobile e-commerce and other security mobile services.
Market researcher Venture Development Corp. expects the SDR market—primarily comprising military, cellular carriers (and eventually cell-phone manufacturers), and public safety agencies—to drive market revenues for these devices in North America and Europe to more than $5 billion in 2007.