2 Cities Put Future of Wireless to the Test

'Most of all, it took a lot of crazy.' Major telecom players are lining up to build city-scale testbeds for next-generation wireless technologies.

Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video

April 12, 2018

7 Min Read
2 Cities Put Future of Wireless to the Test

Think of every major emerging networking technology in the telecom industry. Software-defined networking. Cloud RAN. Millimeter wave. Edge computing. Spectrum sharing. Software-controlled management and orchestration.

Now imagine a field site where all of these technologies are actually deployed, in an integrated fashion, and with access made available to academic and commercial entities looking to test new applications.

This is what the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) group is aiming to create, and it's just named the first two testbed sites -- one in Salt Lake City and one in West Harlem, N.Y. -- that will kick off the build phase of the program beginning now. (See First PAWR Testbeds Land in Salt Lake City, NYC.)

Figure 1:

The two selected sites hosted launch events this week for program participants to explain the design architectures for their PAWR testbeds. Teams in both cities combine academic and municipal partners, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a consortium of industry interests are contributing funding. Funding in this case amounts to $100 million evenly split between the government and the private sector. (See $100M at Stake in US Wireless RFP.)

Why are the government and private companies interested? In short, there's not enough investment in pure wireless networking research, much less collaborative development work, taking place in the US today. This is the kind of research that's crucial for enabling future applications in areas like advanced healthcare, the connected car sector and augmented reality, but unless there's both commitment and collaboration from the relevant parties today, it's also the foundational work that won't be in place as new application innovations start to emerge. (See also Huawei Dwarfs Ericsson, Nokia on R&D Spend in 2017.)

To get a sense of just how important this effort is, consider the industry players involved: all four major US wireless carriers; top telecom vendors including Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK); the two largest cell tower companies; and additional organizations that range from Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL) to the CTIA to edge computing specialist Vapor IO .

"I cannot even begin to describe how excited, how thrilled, just how overjoyed we all are," said Dr. Erwin Gianchandani, deputy assistant director for computer and information science and engineering (CISE) at NSF, about the kick-off of the PAWR program at the New York City launch event on Tuesday. Gianchandani explained how his colleague Dr. Thyaga Nandagopal, CISE director and the program director for PAWR, came up with the idea about three years ago of bringing together industry representatives and academic researchers in a joint wireless research project. Nandagopal estimated even then that it would take two to three years to organize such an endeavor and about $100 million in funding.

Now that the PAWR program is a reality, Gianchandani adds that "Most of all, it took a lot of crazy."

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The PAWR program office is planning to name four testbed sites around the country; city-scale living labs that layer cutting-edge networking technology over a real-world landscape complete with real people, vehicles, terrain challenges and more. Of the first two teams selected to participate, the one in Salt Lake City includes the University of Utah, the Salt Lake City government, the Utah Education and Telehealth Network and Rice University.

Calling their project POWDER, or Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research, the Salt Lake City team has designed a site that will cover 2.3 square miles on the campus of the University of Utah, 1.2 square miles downtown, and a corridor stretching 2 miles in between. With fixed and mobile network nodes, advanced hardware and a programmable software overlay, the POWDER site will enable research over both software-driven 4G and experimental 5G network configurations.

The second PAWR team is the one lining up in West Harlem. With a project called Cloud Enhanced Open Software-Defined Mobile Wireless Testbed for City-Scale Deployment (and thankfully shortened to COSMOS), the New York City team includes Rutgers University, Columbia University and New York University. Additionally, COSMOS is partnering with the city of New York, Silicon Harlem, City College of New York, the University of Arizona and IBM.

Like POWDER, COSMOS has grand ambitions to serve in the vanguard of wireless experimental research. Unlike POWDER, COSMOS will do its work in one of the densest, most diverse and chaotic regions of the country -- a 1-square-mile site covering about 15 blocks and bordered by the Hudson River and the legendary Apollo Theater.

Next page: Spotlight on New York

Spotlight on New York: What does a testbed look like?
At a very high level, the architecture designed by the COSMOS team combines ultra-high networking speeds with low latency and compute capacity at the network edge. However, the details for the COSMOS testbed are also surprisingly well fleshed out.

The site will feature about 250 small, medium and large software-defined radio nodes (static and vehicular) connected via fiber to optical WDM transport. Compute clusters will also be colocated with medium and large nodes, and a software-defined control plane will enable cloud server connectivity. Key technologies woven into the system will include millimeter wave (mmWave) phased arrays, and the ORBIT Management Framework (OMF), a control and management software framework based on open source code and used globally by other research testbeds.

"The capability of having a fully programmable wireless front end with edge computing and cloud computing, again programmable, and a programmable optical backbone with millimeter wave radio," says Professor Tommaso Melodia, director of research in the PAWR Project Office and an associate professor at Northeastern University, "is something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."

Figure 2:

The COSMOS team also has some initial plans for experimentation. One is to design and implement new full-duplex network links, i.e. links that allow upstream and downstream wireless transmissions simultaneously. Another is to test dynamic spectrum sharing via cooperative spectrum coordination algorithms. Still another is to look at vehicular sensor sharing and tests that leverage multiple mobile nodes with multiple levels of cloud processing in real-world traffic conditions.

Long before any of that happens, however, the first step in the project is to light up a dark fiber ring around the entire COSMOS site. That effort will be facilitated by the city with initial assets and support contributed by the University of Arizona, Columbia University, City College and Silicon Harlem. Crown Castle International Corp. (NYSE: CCI), as a PAWR industry partner, will help fill in the gaps.

And once the whole testbed is built, research and development time will be ideally be allocated roughly equally among academic researchers and commercial entities participating in the project.

Speaking about private sector interest, Joe Kochan, COO of US Ignite and the project director for the PAWR Project Office says, "Most of the carrier testbeds [i.e. the ones wireless carriers put in place on their own] are very near-term and deployment-oriented. So I know a couple of the carriers in particular were interested in getting a chance to see some of the innovation that they can't put in their testbeds now because it's not ready to be commercialized, and yet may drive their technology roadmap in the future."

Figure 3:

Most likely, once COSMOS is up and running, even more companies and industry organizations will emerge from the woodwork with their own research aims.

Bob D'Eletto, business development manager at Keysight Technologies, which was born out of HP and is an active PAWR sponsor, may have explained the reason for this best.

"Other countries are doing a lot in the area of wireless research," says D'Eletto. "And wireless platforms, let's face it, that's the basis, the foundation of almost every technology [being developed today] ... [Without it] a company like Facebook probably wouldn't exist. It wouldn't even be there today. Google, same thing."

D'Eletto suggests that for the US economy to succeed in the future, more investment in research is needed. "It's very important that we retain leadership in wireless technology."

COSMOS, POWDER and PAWR can help make that happen.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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