Wednesday, August 01, 2012

How software-defined radio could revolutionize wireless

The Phi hopes to do for radio what Apple I did for computing—spark innovation

In 1976, two shaggy-haired college dropouts founded a company called Apple to manufacture personal computers. The company's prospects looked so poor that the third co-founder relinquished his 10 percent stake in the company for $800 that same year. It simply wasn't clear why anyone would want the firm's Apple I computer. It was so under-powered that it couldn't perform many of the functions of mainframes and minicomputers that were already on the market. And most consumers had no interest in having a computer in their homes.

Today, of course, Apple is the world's largest company by market capitalization. What was important about the Apple I wasn't the meager capabilities of the original version, but the promise it held for rapid innovation in the coming decades.

Now, a company called Per Vices hopes to do for wireless communication what Apple did for computing. It is selling software-defined radio gear called the Phi that, like the Apple I, is likely to be of little interest to the average consumer (it was even briefly priced at the same point as the Apple I, $666.66, but has since been placed at $750). But the device, and others like it, has the potential to transform the wireless industry. This time, the revolution will depend on hackers enabled to manipulate radio signals in software.

The versatility of software-defined radio

Traditional radio chips are hard-wired to communicate using one specific protocol. For example, a typical cell phone has several different chips to handle a variety of radio communications: one to talk to cell phone towers, another to contact WiFi base stations, a third to receive GPS signals, and a fourth to communicate with Bluetooth devices. In contrast, software-defined radio hardware works with raw electromagnetic signals, relying on software to implement specific applications.

This makes software-defined radio devices tremendously versatile. With the right software, a single software-defined radio chip could perform the functions of all of those special-purpose radio chips in your cell phone and many others besides. It could record FM radio and digital television signals, read RFID chips, track ship locations, or do radio astronomy. In principle it could perform all of these functions simultaneously. Software-defined radio hardware also enables rapid prototyping of new communications protocols.

(Source : ars technica via The SWLing Post)

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