wireless in the city (Vasin Lee/Shutterstock.com)

Salt Lake City, NYC land wireless testbed pilot

The National Science Foundation’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research program named the first two cities that will serve as testbeds for new communication and networking technologies.

PAWR is designed to "revolutionize the nation’s wireless ecosystem," according to NSF. It will allow researchers and industry to experiment with new wireless devices, communication techniques, networks  and services that will be enabled by 5G and the internet of things. PAWR, along with a Wireless Industry Consortium representing 30 companies, has allocated $100 million in public/private funding to deploy and manage four city-scale research testbeds.

Salt Lake City and New York City each offer unique testing environments, said Thyaga Nandagopal, deputy division director of the Division of Computing and Communication Foundations at NSF.

A key advantage of Salt Lake City it its inland location, Thyaga said. With all the Defense Department installations along the coastal regions, "any experimental uses [of spectrum] within range of the coast has thus the potential to interfere with potential DOD uses of the spectrum. An inland location such as Salt Lake City that is far away from such installations has the ability to offer interference-free experimental testing capabilities in such bands."

The Federal Communications Commission has been working with DOD and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to investigate ways spectrum can be shared when not in use by DOD --  a tricky proposition because of the sensitive nature of much of the data that traverses military systems, Thyaga said.

“Salt Lake City is so much in the interior that there is no real issues with testing sensitive frequencies that the DOD may have objections to. It is a great place to do dynamic spectrum testing across a wide swath of spectrum bands, both in the commercial and federal spectrum bands,” he said.

Known as the Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research-Reconfigurable Ecosystem for Next-generation End-to-End Wireless, the Salt Lake City testbed is the world’s largest in terms of geographical coverage. It will cover 2.3 square miles of the University of Utah campus, 1.2 square miles of downtown and a two-mile corridor in between, potentially reaching 400,000 people.

Another advantage that the Utah city offers is a partnership with Houston-based Rice University to develop a massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology. It “allows for, in theory, almost infinite scaling of capacity, depending on the number of hardware” elements, Thyaga said. Rice is a world leader in realizing fully programmable, measurable, large-scale, massive MIMO platforms. “Right now, they have a 96-element array," Thyaga said. "They are now going to develop for this testbed a 256-element array, which is going to give us four times higher throughput or four times more … users that they can support in a single cell.”

A key characteristic that pushed New York to the top of PAWR’s list is its population and building density. The Cloud Enhanced Open Software-Defined Mobile Wireless Testbed for City-Scale Deployment platform will explore ultra-high bandwidth, low-latency wireless capabilities in a one-square-mile area of the city’s West Harlem area, which encompasses commercial buildings, residences, schools and park space.

“One of the interesting things about New York is a dense, highly urban environment, so it’s great for looking at what carriers really look for in deployment,” Thyaga said. “When they talk about deploying small cells and whatnot, they’re worried about propagation and how those high-rises and urban terrain can actually create signal fades and challenges [to] ensuring good coverage.”

What’s more, the New York team has expertise in testing millimeter wave communication systems, which operate in frequencies above 25 GHz, he said. Last year, the United States became the first country to make vast quantities of this high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum available for licensed and unlicensed use.

Researchers at New York’s Columbia University have developed innovative millimeter wave hardware with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a group at New York University was the first to show it could run all-millimeter systems. A millimeter testbed will be part of the New York platform, Thyaga said.

The open and programmable testbeds are open to all users; academic researchers can use them for free, while industry must pay for access. Users can test LTE, Wi-Fi or 5G networks, for example.

PAWR will deploy the testbeds in stages, with initial availability expected in one year in both cities and full functionality by 2021.

PAWR also issued a request for information for two more testbed cities. Comments are due May 31, and Thyaga said the next set of awards should be made in July 2019.

“We are looking for creative uses of the testbeds. Our goal is to enable the U.S. prosperity and leadership in this space, so we really encourage users to provide us feedback and use them,” he said.

Editor's note: This article was changed April 20 to correct the frequencies of the New York millimeter wave tests and to clarify that the platform is a testbed, not a pilot. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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