Software defined radio (SDR) systems are somewhat of a holy grail in technology as they use software to shift frequencies and modulation schemes while utilizing multipurpose underlying hardware. In a perfect world you could use software defined radio technology to receive cellular calls, WiFi, bluetooth, GPS, AM/FM, Sirius, XM, HDTV, etc.
Imagine if your smartphone used all the communications modes above with need for just a single processor – wouldn’t that just be amazing? Of course this will likely be possible some day but for now there are hardware components which handle each of the above functions. In many cases multiple functions can be combined on a single integrated processor module or chipset.
If SDR was ubiquitous today we wouldn’t worry much about the various new flavors of 802.11 such as A, G, N, etc… Why? Because our devices would all be software-upgradeable allowing us to take advantage of the latest wireless standard without the need to forklift our existing access points and devices.
For wireless service providers the problem is even bigger as base stations are very expensive and forklifting a base station is a daunting prospect. But with newer and more efficient wireless technologies continuing to be developed how do you combat the ever-growing cost of throwing out the old ands supporting the new?
One way is to consider SDR for you base station via the technology being developed by Vanu Inc. The company was founded in 1998 by Dr. Vanu Bose the son of Dr. Amar Bose who made a name for himself in high-end audiophile products ranging from headphones to home theatre and commercial systems.
Vanu develops software-defined radio solutions for wireless service providers and similar to the world of HMP you use the CPU as your DSP. For those of you who are familiar with the DSP resource board market you know companies like Dialogic and Aculab make HMP solutions today that once required proprietary boards.
These boards were once required for speech recognition, automated attendants, IVR systems and even voicemail. Now many of these applications can run on the host processor and proprietary boards are needed only when you are scaling to levels the core processor(s) cannot handle.
The evolution to HMP is one of the reasons Intel purchased Dialogic about seven years back. For more information on what these enabling technology companies are up to see Dialogic Does Video and Aculab’s ApplianX.
But leaving HMP and heading back to the world of SDR, Vanu’s Anywave Radio Access Network software runs on Linux boxes with Intel processors.
I find a similarity between what Vanu and Amar Bose have done with their respective companies. One of the most innovative products to come out of Bose about twenty years ago was the Acoustic Wave portable stereo system which packed the punch of a much larger stereo system in a space smaller than a 17 inch computer monitor.
The story goes that Amar was listening to a flute fill a concert hall and had an epiphany. Flutes utilize resonant frequencies and can project a large amount of sound over a narrow frequency range. If you have ever blown air into a Coke bottle at a certain angle and heard that distinctive sound, you know what I am talking about.
Amar realized it would be revolutionary to take the concept of resonant frequencies and apply it to a stereo system and subsequently his company developed Acoustic Waveguide technology allowing a single enclosure to produce multiple resonant frequencies. The result was a compact system which was responsible for developing rich, deep base once limited to larger speakers and more amplifier power.
Prior to this accomplishment some speaker manufacturers used a tuned port within the speaker enclosure which resonated at one specific frequency.
Bose Sr. was able to for the first time use a single underlying speaker architecture to generate multiple resonant frequencies. Vanu’s company uses a single underlying software architecture to generate a variety of wireless communications modes.
Another benefit to a software approach based on off the shelf hardware is the dramatic decrease in cost achieved when compared to fixed function, proprietary systems. As a software house Vanu can instantaneously take advantage of Moore’s law without having to do additional development work.
This cost savings is passed along to the carrier and in addition the provider now knows they are able to upgrade the base station when needed to support yet another standard. So far Vanu has shown they can operate a combined GSM, CDMA and iDEN base station through SDR technology.
The benefits of working with Vanu Inc. seem to be endless from lower power consumption to lower cost to future-proofing your investment. Still a major service provider may not feel like they should bet the farm on a small company as they need to make sure their suppliers are around for the long haul.
But then again when you consider Vanu is a software company you begin to realize the company has much less at risk compared to typical hardware manufacturers.
Where SDRs are especially attractive is at a company like Sprint where they need multi-mode radio base stations. In addition the femtocell market could be another place where SDR makes a great deal of sense allowing an enterprise or home to support a number of different wireless standards.
The rural telco market is a further area where SDR can help providers deploy low-cost wireless networks. To that end, the Massachusetts-based SDR company announced recently it will partner with Globecomm Systems to provide turn key-based base station solutions while allowing the latter to focus on the hosted switching service.
One wonders why there just aren’t more companies in the SDR space. I would expect about 20 players to be pumping out products by now. Is the technology too new for others to take the plunge? The concept has been around for fifteen years but perhaps CPUs have just recently become powerful enough to do a good job.
Could this be a technology that languished for a few years like VoIP and one vendor is needed to shake up the whole market. I don’t hear too much about SDR from the major telecom equipment providers so I wonder if there is a downside I haven’t considered.
Vanu seems to be acquiring customers in niche markets and one would imagine they are talks with the major players. I believe a single tier one service provider announcement is all that is needed to really make SDR a more popular term like FMC or IMS. Until then, we will have to focus on Vanu and the handful of other players in the space and wait for one of them to shake things up.

  • Andy
    April 12, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Interesting post Rich.
    The software radio can definitely work in the base station arena where the cost is not the driving factor.
    At the CPE side though this becomes difficult. Yes with advances in DSPs and convergent processors (e.g. ADI Blackfin device) the SDR is indeed a possibility in the home. However one of the main problems, in my opinion, is the RF side of the design.
    Consider WCDMA, GSM, 802.11 – they all use different frequency spectrums and some are wideband some narrow band. It is the RF side that becomes a challenge for SDRs in the home as the RF component cost to cover all these standards becomes significant.
    Just my opinion 🙂
    Kind regards.

  • rajiv
    May 31, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    SDR will be a niche.
    All radio systems these days have a good deal of SW(or very fast statemachines)
    The economic arguement for SDR is that as HW speed improves same sw can be used(ie SW resuse to save engineering cost). The example Vanu gives in their whitepapers is the same code that could barely do 1 AMPS channel on pc 10 years ago can handle a lot more channels today, without changing code.
    That is true. However if a custom hardware today is designed lot more can be done.
    Take for example all the new OFDM based systems. They would be impossible 20 years ago but today with faster FPGAs and asics the technology is seen in DSL, wimax,wifi, perhaps 4G. Custom HW will allways be faster and with synthesis based tools it is getting cheaper to produce. There is reuse of IP blocks, one doesnt need to design an NPoint FFT block by hand.
    So if the question is will SDRs be seen more and more. My bet is Yes.
    Will Hardware Designed Radios be replaced The answer is No.
    Moores law is working for both types of designs here

  • Serdar Z
    August 25, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    SDR as Vanu has been attempting to sell is vaporware.
    Theoretically speaking would it be possible to make a Base Station that does what they want to do.
    But there are several obstacles and Vanu hasn’t cleared the first one.
    Communication Equipment by its nature is a complex beast with a lot of ins and out over a variety of standards
    All Base Station vendors over the course of nearly 2.5 decade have put in a lot of energy developing, testing and making sure they work reliably.
    Then there are additional services that are all built on top of the basic.
    Vanus solutions are not competitive there simply put b/c they are some 25 yrs late in the game and are offering incomplete products saying that its multistandard.
    This is where Vanus strategy is flawed big time. No operator wants to deploy multistandard network.
    2 kinds of cpe/handsets to deal with. 2 kinds of networking gear to deal with, all to say there is a common processing and HW front end.
    Third point is where I would like to expand on Rajiv’s comment.
    Digital radio have 2 methods to implement.
    HW/SW combination after digitizing and up/downconversion.
    Sure one can do an amps implementation in SW but what is it worth in the market.
    I dont think vanu has wcdma/umts or wimax implimentation.
    If it does it would be interesting to see how they compare interms of price,size,power dissipation,reliability,etc
    There is nothing in Vanu’s product that say a Nortel, Alcatel-lucent,Erricson, dont have or have done better.

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