Most developers aren’t impressed by the ease of use of wireless protocols – they were originally invented by large corporations and heavily patented, which blocked individual developers from innovation. You had to have very deep pockets to bring any alternative to market.
Fortunately, this is about to change.
Thanks to inexpensive open source software-defined radios (SDRs), innovators will now be able to design their own wireless protocols. These protocols will be easy to use and effective in solving concrete problems instead of broad generalizations or focusing on exceptional use cases. The Github generation of wireless engineers will be born.
With the help of SDRs, these wireless innovators will be able to package their new protocols as apps and publish them in app stores for devices, which can then be used by anybody with an SDR. But, why would you want an SDR if you are not a wireless expert?
The chances are high that you already own many devices that have wireless interfaces, such as Bluetooth speakers, a radio controlled toy car or drone, a radio-controlled thermostat, a wireless doorbell, a remote weather station, radio controlled car keys, a radio controlled air conditioner, a digital radio, remote controlled sockets, a remote garage door opener, and potentially many more. But, what if, instead of having to buy really expensive smart home and IoT solutions, you just use an SDR to bring together those individual devices into one solution?
If your weather station says it is cold and your phone is detected in the house via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals, then the heating can be turned on by your thermostat. Likewise for your air conditioning. If you go into the garage with Bluetooth on your phone, then the garage door opens and the car doors unlock. Instead of buying expensive IoT-enabled sockets to control lights, you can buy low-cost sockets that have a proprietary protocol and control them via the SDR. Create your own walkie-talkies and use Bluetooth speakers with the SDR. Amaze your friends by flying 30 mini-drones in formation. All of these solutions can just be an SDR app away.
Recently SDRs have been popping up on crowdfunding platforms for $300 and less. These SDRs are currently aimed at developers creating wireless apps and protocols. Developers already started making SDR apps for 2G to 5G, LoRa, IoT, Bluetooth, GPS, radio-controlled sockets, and many more protocols.
As soon as developers have created a full wireless apps ecosystem then the focus will shift towards making production equipment in high volumes substantially cheaper. In the short term existing SDRs can be certified for production purposes and further cost optimized, given its open source specifications are publicly accessible. Mid-term, however, SDR on a chip will bring the price tag below $10 in volume.
Then, it’s about collaborating with the key players to open source complete solutions for specific verticals. In telecom, for example, sub-$100 mobile base station designs, the base 4G / LTE and other software stacks, standard cloud integrations, and more, can be open sourced. Hardware manufacturers will also be able to download all the hardware specifications to build the sub-$100 mobile base station from Github. Via app stores, developers can choose between commodity open source solutions or specific high-value commercial solutions.
We don’t foresee all software being open source though; think about Android, for example. The operating system is open source, but only a fraction of apps sold through the app store are. The value for network solution providers will shift from hardware and the base protocol software toward revenue-generating and high-value cost-optimizing solutions in the form of apps. Other developers will focus on SDR solutions for the home, healthcare, aviation, logistics, industrial, and many more industries.
Following on from step three, the wireless industry will be transformed, given that the current innovation blockers, like patents, commercial spectrum license and expensive hardware and software will be transformed into open source protocols, commercial spectrum as a service when you need it and open source low-cost hardware and apps via app stores.
Digital signage, smart light poles, vending machines, ATMs, home appliances, and many more devices can all have an SDR in them and provide mobile broadband or other wireless solutions with licensed spectrum, as well. Any device will be able to be part of a distributed ad-hoc, federated, self-organizing broadband network. Running a mobile network will be less about installing large antennas and more about automating the management of distributed networks that get built on top of third-party owned equipment.
Many new protocols can be invented that solve specific use cases, such as industrial IoT, and for which telecom operators who can lease their commercial spectrum as a service. Governments, armies, and telecom operators, who traditionally own lots of spectrum, will want to rent it by the minute and generate new revenues from spectrum they are not using at that time.
Not only are radio engineers needed to build tomorrow’s networks and protocols, but many other types of experts will need to join hands, too.
The future of wireless is being written today. If you want to be part of it, now is your chance.
Maarten Ectors is the VP of IoT for Canonical, the company behind the open source operating system Ubuntu and the app-enabled IoT version Snappy Ubuntu Core.
Ebrahim Bushehri is the CEO of Lime Microsystems, the company behind the LimeSDR, MyriadRF.org and open source SDKs for Lime’s RF chips.
Filed Under: Appliance engineering + home automation, Infrastructure, IoT • IIoT • internet of things • Industry 4.0