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Two U.S. Cities Win Support for 5G Wireless Test Beds

Salt Lake City and New York City will provide citywide testing facilities for 5G

3 min read

Wifi icon on a phone and a cityscape
Image: Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

For 5G, researchers need city-size playgrounds in order to properly test and develop their technologies. That’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will deploy two Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research.

The two PAWR (pronounced “power”) test beds will be in Salt Lake City, Utah, and New York City. For the Salt Lake test bed, the NSF will partner with the University of Utah and Rice University (in Houston, Texas) to oversee the platform. In New York, Rutgers University, Columbia University, and New York University will have that responsibility.

The sheer scale of these test platforms will allow for research options previously unavailable to researchers. “We’ve made limited measurements in the laboratory,” says Sundeep Rangan, the director of NYU Wireless, “but nothing at this scale.” Rangan says the platforms will allow more thorough testing of some of the big promises of 5G, including applications such as VR/AR and autonomous vehicles.

These test beds are about more than testing 5G, though. “What we are thinking is after 5G,” says Thyaga Nandagopal, the deputy division director for the Division of Computing and Communication Foundations at the NSF. In years to come, these test beds will facilitate research into bands of spectrum that have never been used for telecommunications.

“We’re also thinking of a future where spectrum doesn’t have to be licensed,” says Nandagopal. Instead, the test platforms will allow the development of ways to more dynamically and effectively share available spectrum.

Creating a test bed that spans a city enables continuing research into some of the fundamental aspects of 5G. For this new generation of wireless, more complex beamforming and massive MIMO technologies will replace the relatively straightforward signals used by 4G networks.

The test platforms won’t be identical. In Utah, the planned Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research (POWDER) will partner with Rice’s Reconfigurable Eco-system for Next-generation End-to-end Wireless (RENEW) program to provide a flexible environment for researchers to test and tweak their technologies. The focus will be on massive MIMO, and researchers will be able to figure out how to optimize the large number of transmitters and receivers required for future networks.

In New York, the Cloud Enhanced Open Software Defined Mobile Wireless Testbed for City-Scale Deployment (which somehow condenses to the acronym COSMOS) will take advantage of New York City’s dense urban environment to test cloud connectivity. The test platform will be located just north of Columbia University. High-speed fiber will link the deployed cell sites to a data center in midtown Manhattan, where researchers will be able to experiment with cloud computing options such as running cell sites remotely.

One of the big problems that has plagued 5G development is testing the requisite technologies thoroughly. In previous wireless generations, real-world testing was proceeded by copious amounts of emulation. For the most part, 5G’s complex technological requirements have stymied attempts to emulate the sheer number of radio inputs and outputs needed for the new generation. Although there have been a few enterprising attempts to develop 5G emulation, most companies have resigned themselves to extensive—and expensive—over-the-air testing.

NSF will fund both test platforms through 2023. Nandagopal says that heavy cooperation with industry members will keep the sites sustainable for at least a further five years, though he’s confident they’ll continue to be useful for many years beyond that.

Companies have already announced plans to develop 5G test networks through the country. Verizon plans to have 5G networks in five U.S. cities by the end of the year, while AT&T is planning for a dozen. But PAWR needn’t fear competition from those efforts. “The test platforms have nothing to do with 5G rollouts right now,” says Nandagopal, though he adds that corporations will be able to use them for their own research and tests. “We’re looking to build beyond those.”

The first phase of construction will be complete by April 2019, at which point basic tests for deploying Internet of Things or spectrum-managing applications will be possible. By 2021, Nandagopal says, the platforms will be fully completed and operating at their peak potential.

The British government is searching for cities to host similar test platforms in the United Kingdom. The government is collecting bids now, and in the summer it will announce the city that will host the country’s tests. Elsewhere, Germany and Australia are also creating test platforms in cities in anticipation of 5G’s rollout.

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