Radio radio

There is no perfect wireless technology. The laws of physics cause different types of transmissions, using different spectrum, in different areas, to behave in different ways. And any wireless transmission must take into account all other existing transmissions, because they share the same air. That’s why, for all the excitement about WiFi, it won’t be the One Wireless Technology to Rule Them All. It’s also why software-defined radio is important, because it means fewer devices can handle more transmission technologies. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see the patchwork that is developing. Microsoft’s decision to use the FM radio spectrum for data transmissions to its SPOT watches is the latest example.

The story isn’t all that different from wired networking. There are many different networking protocols, such as X.25, IPX, Ethernet, and frame relay, which do different things well. The Internet came along and changed the world not because it replaced that diversity with something uniform, but because it embraced it. TCP/IP is the lowest common denominator that lets all the other protocols interoperate seamlessly.

The integration of many wireless technologies, mostly but not exclusively unlicensed, into an uber-network is inevitable. But the big question mark is how that integration will proceed. Will it be through open protocols, such as the GNU Radio project, or through proprietary routing and network discovery software in devices such as PCs, smart phones, and residential gateways? With the announcement this week of Microsoft’s SPOT devices and Apple’s 802.11g/Bluetooth laptop, the battle is joined. But where is the technical community? The Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, the two leading open standards bodies for the Net, are oriented toward software rather than wireless technologies. And the wireless-oriented groups such as the IEEE tend to focus on specific technologies such as 802.11. Perhaps we need a new kind of standards body for the new kind of network that is emerging.