Mobile Phone Software and Standards

Stephen DeAngelis

September 27, 2007

A couple of my recent posts have discussed mobile phones and the benefits of standardization [Relief, Development, and the Digital Divide] and the challenges faced when such standards are lacking [see postscript to Two Sigma Solutions]. A New York Times article by Michael Fitzgerald talks about how software could provide the answer to the mobile phone standardization problem [“Software That Fills a Cellphone Gap,” 23 September 2007].

“Vanu Bose is the son of a fabled engineer, but he garnered no mercy when he presented his big idea at a technical conference in 1996. Mr. Bose’s graduate work at M.I.T. involved using software to handle the radio function in a cellular phone. He remembers that after he successfully demonstrated his technology, an audience member stood up and dismissed it with: ‘Congratulations! You’ve just invented the world’s most expensive cellphone.’ Mr. Bose, a personable man, shrugged off the criticism. He expected that over time, the increasing processing speed of chips would make such phones much cheaper. But he didn’t want to make the phones. He wanted to remake the wireless base station, the guts of the world’s cellular networks, by changing them from complex systems that incorporate hardware, software and the electronics needed for wireless communications into systems run primarily with software.”

For consistent readers of this blog, you’ll understand my interest in automated software solutions. What Bose is trying to do in the cellphone industry, Enterra Solutions is doing in other fields. Enterra Solutions’ technology approach for enhancing service oriented architectures choreographs legacy systems using software to integrate data. Bose’s approach is to use software to integrate legacy mobile phone standards.

“Most of us don’t think of our cellphones as radios, but they are. Any wireless device uses a radio. Figuring out a way to operate the radio with software has obvious potential advantages: for one, it’s easier and cheaper to upgrade software than it is to send field technicians to cellular towers to add components. And a software-based radio — the industry calls it software-defined radio — could handle multiple cellular signals at the same time, the way a computer can run a browser, a word processor and a spreadsheet all at once. So, in theory, letting cellular companies accommodate new spectrum or technologies by doing software upgrades could expand coverage and services while possibly reducing what we pay for them.”

Two years after introducing his ideas at the MIT conference, Bose started Vanu Inc. The article informed readers that Bose had to use his first name for the company since his father, Amar, had already founded a company that uses the Bose family name. The article also notes that most of Bose’s work has been for the military, which also has a standardization problem. “The armed forces typically use different kinds of radios but need them all to talk to one another, which has prompted two large research projects, Speakeasy and the current Joint Tactical Radio System.” Bose, however, never forgot his original idea and has returned to it.

“As cheap semiconductor technology caught up with the needs of his software, he was able to pursue commercial markets. He now has several customers for the company’s AnyWave wireless base stations for cellphone networks. Mr. Bose is not the first to pursue converting radios to software. The idea had been developed in the late 1980s, and Joseph Mitola, an engineer now at the Mitre Corporation, a research organization, is credited with being the first to discuss an effective software radio architecture, at a conference in 1991. Well-established companies like Motorola and Ericsson now use elements of software-defined radio for their base stations. But Mr. Bose was the first to come to market with software that could handle multiple networks with the same equipment. Software radio appears to offer an elegant solution to what has been a vexing problem: how to have a single handset, like a cellphone, communicate across multiple networks. For instance, the G.S.M. standard, for global system for mobile communications, is used broadly in Europe, and most notably in the United States by AT&T. But it does not work with phones built for the C.D.M.A. standard, for code division multiple access, that is used in the United States by Verizon and others and is popular in South Korea. Mr. Bose’s software makes it possible for the network to switch modes automatically.”

As a frequent traveler overseas, I’ve had to pay for a couple of different cellphones in order to conduct business. Bose’s invention could end all that. Bose could also make a lot of money if the idea catches on.

“While the AnyWave Base Station still includes components like wireless transmitters and receivers, the company ultimately would like to focus on selling its software to other businesses that build base stations. That would position Vanu to become ‘the Microsoft of the wireless base station industry,’ said Bruce Sachs, a general partner at Charles River Ventures, which recently put money into an $8 million funding round for Vanu. Mr. Sachs says that the market for base stations is worth billions of dollars by itself and that as cellular operators upgrade over time to technologies like WiMax or H.S.D.P.A., for high-speed downlink packet access, wireless markets worldwide will be open to Vanu. There is also potential for markets that are just emerging, like that for ‘femto cells.’ (In mathematics, a femto is a quadrillionth.) The cells will plug into a power outlet and bolster cellular coverage for a home or business. But that is in the future: Ian Cox, an analyst at ABI Research, projects that the market for software-based radio won’t start to boom until 2012.”

Where Vanu Inc. has taken hold presently is in rural cellular markets where local carriers make money when larger carriers pay to connect to their modest networks.

“The present is more modest, and it rests in rural markets like De Leon, Tex., home of Mid-Tex Cellular, Vanu’s first commercial customer. Toney Prather, the chief executive of Mid-Tex, said he was intrigued by the technology because the company makes a good deal of its money from roaming charges for people who aren’t already its customers, and Vanu would give him a way to add more networks without having to add expensive base stations. He first used Vanu’s software to upgrade his existing network to G.S.M., and in the next few weeks he intends to add C.D.M.A. Rural cellularization may not sound like much, but Mr. Bose is a follower of Clayton M. Christensen, the management guru, who also happens to serve on Vanu’s board. Mr. Christensen told him that the best place to start a new business is where there isn’t yet an established market. So Vanu is starting a project, its largest yet, in Alaska, and is involved with I.B.M, on a demonstration for a project to bring villages in India onto the cellular network. No longer, then, is Vanu Bose building the world’s most expensive cellphone. In fact, he may help make the cellphone possible everywhere.”

This approach fits neatly into the philosophical framework of Development-in-a-Box™. Vanu Inc. focuses on standards, understands the economics of the bottom of the pyramid, appreciates the power of connectivity, and realizes that partnerships are the best way to move forward. Watching this progress over the next five years should be interesting, especially for global business people.