WASHINGTON -- Consumers may soon be able to update their cell phone and radio features without additional equipment because of technology being considered by federal regulators.
The wireless technology, called software-defined radio, holds the promise of letting mobile phones and radios of the future adapt more easily to new, cutting-edge services as they become available.
For example, a cellular phone containing the software could download services over the airwaves like investment packages or music -- the same way those features would be downloaded to a desktop computer. The services could be upgraded over time, without requiring additional hardware.
The Federal Communications Commission Friday began looking at the technology to see how it can be harnessed to benefit consumers and more efficiently use frequencies.
"Software-defined radio has the potential to bring science fiction to life," said FCC Commissioner Susan Ness. "This will help catapult so many new services to the public."
The agency first wants to make sure the technology would comply with existing standards and prevent interference with those already holding licenses for frequencies.
The commission has taken particular interest in software-defined radio as a way to better manage the nation's airwaves. The technology enables devices to seek out pockets of airwaves that are not being used locally and adapt to those frequencies.
For example, if several broadcasters are covering the same sporting match, they could use software-defined radios to seek out frequencies that taxi drivers in the area might not be using in order to broadcast.
Industry leaders expect consumers could see software-defined radio devices in the marketplace next year and more widely adopted by 2005.
The technology can be compared to a computer that can handle running different applications, said Stephen Blust, director of technology strategy and standards for BellSouth Cellular and chairman of the Software Defined Radio Forum, an industry group working on the technology.
Today, wireless devices are built for certain bands of frequencies and other specifications. Making them operate on multiple systems adds weight and size to the device, making it unwieldy for consumers, Blust said.
But using software-defined radio, a cellular phone would be able to operate with disparate standards used by different mobile services. One practical advantage would be to make it easier for mobile phones to work wherever consumers go, because the devices can download software from remote locations.
"We just open a whole new vista with this," said Blust.
The technology also has important consequences for public safety personnel who use communication systems operating on different frequencies. Software-defined radio helps to make these incompatible systems work with each other.