Software defined radio (SDR) may have a militaristic past, but industry insiders say the technology has a commercial future.

According to Manuel Uhm, senior manager of strategic marketing with Spectrum Signal Processing Inc. – a digital signal processing systems designer in Burnaby, B.C. – software defined radio got its start with the U.S. military, which had a problem with wireless interoperability.

“You’ve got the army on one set of radios, the navy on maybe a different set of radios. You’ve got a strike with allied forces and they’re using different radios, all with different protocols and none of them can talk to one another. That’s a problem when you’re trying to coordinate a surgical strike.”

Uhm said the military needed some way to integrate different kinds of transmissions. “The point was to develop a radio that could dynamically reconfigure itself to adapt to any protocol and talk to other military forces.”

Enter one Joe Mitola, a scientist known as “the godfather of software defined radio,” Uhm said. Mitola, who works with a not-for-profit systems engineering firm called The Mitre Corp. headquartered in Bedford, Mass., created some of the first SDR units for the military in the early ’90s.

By 2000 Mitola had turned his attention to developing a more commercially viable version of SDR – a cognitive radio platform that lays the foundation for some smart wireless features, said Steve Bernier, project leader, military satellite communications with the Communications Research Centre (CRC) in Ottawa.

For example, in an SDR world “you could download over the air a waveform on your device, and your device wouldn’t just be a cell phone anymore,” he said. “It could be your wireless link for IEEE 802.11 as well.”

So when will SDR hit prime time? Frankly, no one’s sure it ever will.

Stephen Howe, vice-president, technical development with Telus Mobility in Toronto, said SDR might be a boon for cell phone users and a bane for manufacturers.

For the moment handset makers operate in silos, he said. They build their own operating systems and decide which phones receive which features.

SDR throws a wrench in the works, Howe said. Users could rely on software upgrades and downloads to affect the way their handsets operate, thereby negating upgrades from the manufacturer.

“It’s the last and only lock handset manufacturers have on their margins,” he said, adding that they would not likely hand over the key without a fight.

To further complicate things, the authorities would have to be involved in SDR implementations. Bernier pointed out that software is more easily manipulated than hardware, which makes SDR-enabled cell phones susceptible to hackers bent on bending rules (boosting handset signal strengths, for example, which makes for better connections but also happens to be illegal).

It’s tough to predict what the future has in store for Mitola’s invention, but it is safe to suggest SDR represents a big change for the wireless world. According to Bernier, some people say the technology is as important as the first transistor.