OpenRadio changes what it means to be an ISP

The havoc that OpenFlow is wreaking in the data center along with its promises for home broadband networks may change the way we think of Internet service providers and in the process solve the spectrum crisis. OpenRadio is a project from Stanford that hopes to use OpenFlow to create pools of available broadband from Wi-Fi, cellular and other networks. The project team is working with Texas Instruments (s txn) to build $300-$500 base stations for the hardware component, while researchers try to build the orchestration software.

Sachin Katti of Stanford presented the OpenRadio idea at the Open Networking Summit held in Santa Clara, Calif. this week, and laid out a clear rationale for using a software-defined network to aggregate all the available wireless technologies together to deliver services. By layering the orchestration software on top of the networks, operators can easily write programs that can help them optimize their networks. For example, an operator could limit Netflix (s nflx) or YouTube (s goog) traffic to only 40 percent of the LTE airwaves and save the remainder for other data traffic and voice.

Right now, operators have to buy expensive gear and make tweaks across their entire network to allocate their bandwidth for certain services. OpenFlow makes the network programmable and easy to tweak using higher-level programming languages. Katti says that by using programs to manage the flow of traffic across a pool of network resources, operators could alleviate the so-valled “spectrum crisis.” From a consumer perspective moving form a Wi-Fi to a cellular network would become seamless under the OpenRadio vision.

Katti’s ideas are compelling, especially for less traditional operators such as Republic Wireless or Free in France. Both operators offer mobile phone service that rely primarily on the Wi-Fi networks around a user and use the 3G networks as a last resort. Given the right hardware and the OpenRadio software they could make managing their networks easier for them and for their users. Katti is working with TI to build the silicon underpinnings for the base stations that would be needed to pool all the available wireless resources for carriers, and will have something available this year.

But for carriers, while this might address their spectrum worries it also is a threat to their business model, which is built around perceived scarcity. Verizon held off on including Wi-Fi in its phones for so long because it wanted to shunt consumers to its cellular network, where the costs per gigabyte of data used are higher. If OpenRadio takes off, it’s easy to envision companies trying to buy service from a wholesaler (maybe Sprint will step up) to create wireless networks out of Wi-Fi, white spaces or other airwaves. Enterprising carriers or hot spot operators might even set up roaming agreements that make such coverage global. I’d love to see OpenRadio make it out of Stanford into the real world.