by John Edwards

GNU Radio Project Envisions a Do-It-All Radio

Apr 01, 20032 mins
Consumer Electronics

IMAGINE AN INFINITELY flexible radio. Simply by loading in various free programs, you could turn the device into a multistandard mobile phone, a GPS locator, an AM-FM stereo receiver or even a portable TV. That’s the goal of the GNU Radio project, which aims to help radio escape from its box.

Eric Blossom, the project’s leader, says moving radio to software makes a lot of sense, since it would eliminate the need to purchase and install hardware components. “We’re trying to turn hardware problems into software problems,” says Blossom. “Generally, software problems are quicker and easier to solve than hardware problems.”

Software would also allow the creation of radios that have been impractical to build using traditional design techniques. A software-based radio could, for example, let users simultaneously listen to an FM music station, monitor a maritime distress frequency and upload data to an amateur radio satellite. Developers could also create a “cognitive radio” that seeks out unused radio frequencies for transmissions. “That could go a long way toward solving the current spectrum shortage,” says Blossom.

The GNU Radio project also wants to throw a virtual monkey wrench into the efforts of big technology and entertainment companies to dictate how, and on what platforms, content can play. By creating a user-modifiable radio, Blossom and his cohorts are staking a claim for consumer control over those platforms. “The broadcast industry has a business plan that fundamentally hasn’t changed since 1920,” he says. “I don’t see any constitutional guarantee that some previous business plan still has to be viable.”

Work on the GNU Radio project’s first design?a PC-based FM receiver?is complete, with an HDTV transmitter and receiver in the works. Yet developers must overcome power consumption issues and other hurdles before a software-defined radio becomes practical. Blossom estimates that it will take about five years before user-modifiable radios hit the mainstream. “Stayed tuned,” he says.