Open source radio

Oct 04, 2007 9:18 pm
From Marcus Estes via WFMU Beware of the Blog:
A community of computer geeks representing the forces of good (you know the type: politically liberal, swift to anger over unjust copyright laws, likely bearded, into Linux, bikes, beer) are working on a new project that could change the way that we use of one of the fundamental forces of nature: radio waves! Open source radio? What a great idea, right? But what is it?

Well, that's a long, slightly complicated story. The leading software project in the open source radio world is called GNU Radio. GNU refers to a software movement started in the '70s by a proto-hippie-geek by the name of Richard Stallman. Stallman was the first software developer to publicly espouse the "free love" approach to software copyrights that lead to such modern marvels as Linux. (The computer hosting this webpage runs Linux, and Linux will be bringing you almost every other webpage you visit today. Thanks, free software!)

GNU Radio operates under a similar philosophy as Linux -- let's all build it together and give it away to anyone who wants to use it. If you want to add to it, cool, but here's the trick: you have to give it away free as well. This has proved incredibly disruptive to a lot of powerful, evil corporations who would like to make sure that everyone has to pay for the ability to use a computer. First the free software movement brought us a computer operating system. As its next trick it built much of the infrastructure that powers today's internet.

Now they're working on radio. And we're not just talking AM/FM. These little open source radios can work with all radio, including TV, cell phone transmissions, and even microwaves. I guess. That's the thing, it's all a little mysterious at this point, to the uninitiated.

In a article for Wired magazine on this project, one of the inventors began by showing off what one these little puppies can do.

"Here," he explains, "I'm grabbing FM."

"All of it?" I ask.

"All of it," he says.

So there's one answer: Coupled with a proper radio antenna and receiver, you could listen to every radio station on the planet. At the same time. Why, you ask? Let's not worry about whys just yet. These fellas are working on more of a, "if it's possible, let's do it," sort of philosophy.

The original inspiration for the project was political. Congress has for years threatened to pass a law called the broadcast flag that would prevent anyone from making hardware that could record digital television shows. Because these software-powered radios can also work as TV tuners, software developers are working to make sure than giant electronics corporations are not the only ones in control of the technology. Beyond TV and radio, people have been using this work to do all sorts of wacky things, like hacking together super-local GPS systems and more.

If the notion of "turning the digital modulation schemes used in high performance wireless devices into software problems" seems confusing to you, there's probably not much fun to be had with an open source radio device just yet. You'll have to wait until somebody creates something more easy to use. (Or if you're into radio tech, C++ and / or Python coding, visit Ettus, a vendor that sells "Universal Software Radio Peripherals.") But with technology that's playfully rewriting the rules for such a fundamental natural phenomenon as radio waves, it's bound to give birth to some really interesting toys sooner or later. As one of the inventors said, "We're bringing the free-software ethic to radio, who knows what's going to come out of it?"