Future of wireless could depend on software defined radios

Paul Boughton

Software defined radios have been talked about for a decade. But technological developments coupled with industry demand could see software programmable RF modules becoming the standard for any wireless connectivity. Mike Farese reports.

Wireless markets continue to grow at a phenomenal rate. This year will see approximately 1.4 billion handsets sold globally, and there are more than 2billion mobile phone subscribers in the world.

What is more these subscribers increasingly want high value applications, based on wireless protocols, in their handsets.

This demand for added wireless functionality means that the highest growth sector in the mobile industry is now in smart or full feature phones.

Internet browsing, downloads, streaming, global position systems (GPS) and social networking are now common features in high-end phones.

However, it is proving difficult for device manufacturers and engineers to keep up, both with consumer demand for more functionality, and with the increasing proliferation of wireless protocols.

Globally, frequency bands in use already range from 200MHz to 4GHz and there are always more protocols being developed and more spectrum being auctioned off. But for a traditional, fixed function transceiver to be developed for a specific protocol it can take up to four years before it is ready for volume production.

Moreover, the more wireless functions manufacturers want to add to their devices the more transceivers they need.

As a result device manufacturers are forced to either sacrifice board space or cherry pick wireless protocols for their handsets. No one can easily provide a full set of wireless applications.

So, as 2009 starts, smart phones increase in popularity and complexity. How will device manufacturers cope with the commercial and technological demands? Could the answer be software based?

Software defined radios (SDR) have been talked about for a decade. Despite the flexibility and advantages of the technology, SDR always runs into the same problems - the architecture is too big, too expensive and uses too much power. In 2009 I believe there will be a significant shift. New developments on the technology side coupled with increasing industry demand could see software programmable RF modules becoming the standard technology for any kind of wireless connectivity.

Certainly the benefits of SDR are obvious. The ease of integration, resulting in a shorter time to market, for ODMs and OEMs will help them and benefit the end user, with seamless connectivity across the spectrum. Moreover, SDR replaces multiple pieces of hardware with one. And to upgrade, whether to WiMax, LTE or any other future protocol, all that will be required is a simple software update. Indeed, I see these new protocols acting as a catalyst for software programmable transceivers.

Do manufacturers really want to continue with the difficulties currently associated with fixed function RF modules? Especially when software programmable transceivers provide a platform for one device to be used for many applications, without sacrificing board space, or power, or cost.

Already some companies can provide chips with two different transceivers on one piece of silicon. The inherent need for manufacturers to reduce the number of RF chips in their devices is apparent.

Software programmable platforms simply approach this problem with a much higher level of sophistication.

At BitWave we have developed our Softransceiver RFIC to meet the demands of the wireless industry, and to overcome the failings of SDR. Our technology is a first - a software programmable transceiver platform that is low power, low cost and small in size, without any compromise in performance. SDR can now meet the technological and the commercial requirements of wireless device manufacturers.

Mike Farese is Chief Executive Officer, BitWave Semiconductor, Lowell, MA. USA. www.bitwavesemiconductor.com