It's an intriguing time for the U.S. wireless industry. After several years without any significant new licensed spectrum blocks being made available, the FCC auctioned 90 MHz of advanced wireless services, or AWS, spectrum this year, is scheduled to accept bids on 700 MHz spectrum within 13 months and is wrestling with rules to make the vast "white spaces" between TV channels usable for wireless operators.

But simply having more airwaves to use may not be enough to resolve the spectrum shortage cited by operators, which want to make money by feeding consumers' and enterprises' seemingly insatiable appetites for connectivity to any application -- whenever and wherever they want to use it. With exclusive licensing for spectrum, peak periods of activity strain the capacity limits for virtually every operator.

"If [mobile video on demand] was a reality, we'd saturate the airwaves quickly under the current system," said Antonio Turgeon, chairman and CEO of TechnoConcepts. "So that means we need to be able to switch to alternate bands."

And Turgeon's company plans to help operators do just that. TechnoConcepts last week announced that its True Software Radio wireless receiver and transmitter chips are entering the commercial phase. Designed to send and receive signals from 400 MHz to 6 GHz and make direct digital conversions, the software-programmable chips are targeted for delivery to potential licensees in the first quarter of next year.

Now, software-defined radio (SDR) is not a new concept, as the military has been using it for years. However, the SDR-enabled equipment typically has been too expensive for those without access to a vast defense-department budget. Turgeon said he has spoken with analysts who believe TechnoConcepts can help change this paradigm, using a flexible "world phone" -- one that works with various protocol flavors at the frequency used in whatever country -- as an example.

"Their analysis was that, to build a world phone today, the core components would cost $80 to $85," Turgeon said. "They felt that, with our technology integrated into a baseband platform in a single-chip type of environment that is software programmable, the component costs could come down to under $30."

At the moment, TechnoConcepts has 15 "major entities waiting for the technology," with most of the pending business coming from Asia, Turgeon said. Although TechnoConcepts plans to pursue the larger commercial market first, the technologies' connectivity and interoperability characteristics also are ideal for public-safety communications, he said.

"We have had an initiative in that area, and we've had a few Congressmen who are interested in that technology," Turgeon said. "But those are longer-type plays; they take longer to evolve and go through the right channels."

TechnoConcepts is not the only company with plans to have programmable front-end chips, as Bitwave also plans to make its transceiver commercially available. Integrating these chips with baseband technology is crucial to making commercial SDR -- and, ultimately, cognitive radio -- a success.

And having affordable frequency-agile wireless technology promises to have a massive impact on the industry. Owning contiguous blocks of spectrum in a single band would not be as necessary as it is today; other spectral resources could be leveraged during times of peak activity; and the notion of developing a much-discussed secondary spectrum market that would let users access unused spectrum at any given moment could be economically compelling to all participants.

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight, but announcements like the one made by TechnoConcepts offer a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It seems like the big question revolving around frequency-agile wireless technology is not "If?" but "When?"

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