Testing of a radio design that is expected to result in affordable cognitive handsets will begin before the end of the year, with a version of the design costing less than $500 to manufacture expected in 2010, according to an official with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“We're hitting lots of bumps and a lot of problems that we didn't expect, but we aren't seeing any obstacles,” said Preston Marshall, program manager for DARPA's strategic technology office. “There's no reason to think we aren't going to get there.”

This year's evaluation marks the first of three rounds of designing and testing that DARPA is planning for the cognitive radios — manufactured by M/A-COM and featuring a cognitive software engine developed by Shared Spectrum — as part of the Wireless Network After Next (WNAN) program. The Shared Spectrum solution was demonstrated to be a viable dynamic spectrum access technology during DARPA's XG program.

While DARPA's primary focus is to conduct technology research for military systems, Marshall said he is hopeful that the cognitive radios resulting from the WNAN program also will be used by public-safety personnel that have many of the same reliability needs as military soldiers. While the program is expected to create a cognitive-radio design that can be built for $500 for 100,000 radios — a number the military might purchase by itself — the price could decrease noticeably if the volume reached 500,000 or more radios, he said.

“It's very much a function of volume more than parts,” Marshall said. “It's advantageous for the Department of Defense if public safety buys in, because volume creates economy.”

If the economics work well enough, Marshall said he believes affordable cognitive radios could alter the business model long used by both the military and public safety, allowing each group to refresh its communications systems more frequently.

“Three years from now, my radio won't be the best; there will be something better you can build. If it cost $500, you'll throw it in the trash … and get a new one,” he said. “We're afraid of obsolescence now because we can't afford to capitalize equipment that cost us $5000 per unit. If you spend $500 [per unit], it's just an expense.”

Cognitive systems are designed to find and use available spectrum, and entire talk groups can move to different frequencies as the availability of airwaves changes during an incident. Marshall said this flexibility means a cognitive radio's front end — a major cost factor in frequency-specific radios — does not have to be as robust, which allows the manufacturing costs to be lower.

Meanwhile, this flexibility also means cognitive systems are able to better avoid potential interference, which increases system reliability and reduces the need for frequency coordination during incidents, especially when incident-specific policies are embedded in the gear. Sal D'Itri, director of sales and marketing for Shared Spectrum, said he believes the ability of cognitive-radio systems to simplify communications in crisis situations will be the most attractive aspect of the technology to public-safety users.

“Having that ability in the radio makes the planning process smoother and helps the people in the field adapt to changing environments, so they're not having to run around and reprogram a host of radios,” D'Itri said.

Marshall echoed this sentiment.

“You don't have to manage spectrum, you don't have to assign frequencies, and you don't have two people in the same frequency,” he said. “If you bring in fire departments or police from two adjoining towns, you won't find out inadvertently that they were on the same frequency and are jamming each other.”

Eventually, widespread use of cognitive radios could allow regulators to revamp the manner in which it allocates spectrum to government entities — airwaves could be pooled instead of each entity having dedicated spectrum that often is underutilized but may not be enough during a high-profile incident, Marshall said.

“Right now, everybody plans for their worst-case spectrum needs — FEMA, the Department of Justice, each of the first responders and the military have tried to reserve the spectrum we need to get our job done,” he said. “The fact is, simultaneously, we're not all going to be there at that same place doing the job at the same moment. By pooling spectrum, it gives everybody a better opportunity [to get] what they need when they need it.”

$500

The anticipated manufacturing costs of cognitive radios based on volume of 100,000 units.