When we imagine what the next decades will bring in terms of technological advancements, we often think of self-driving cars, remote or robotic surgeries, and more immersive virtual reality applications.

But not all of these technologies are possible without significant advances in wireless communications. This has been the subject of ongoing research at Northeastern’s Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, where a team of researchers now plans to use new grants to build a one-of-a-kind cellular base station that will enable research into 5G and 6G network technology.

It is predicted that 5G, the current generation of wireless communications, could be up to 20 times faster than the previous generation, or 4G LTE; the next level of bandwidth awaits, and with it improved technologies and wider connectivity.

Funding of approximately $ 2 million, disbursed over three years by the National Science Foundation, will go towards building a fully open, programmable platform that could test high-frequency radio bands with the goal of unlocking speeds. Internet even faster and solve the barriers to connectivity. that plague 5G, say several Northeast experts involved in the research.

From left to right: Tommaso Melodia, director of the WiNES laboratory and Dimitrios Koutsonikolas, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Photos by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

The platform would consist of eight separate cellular nodes that would be built around the campus, serving as cellular base stations or Wi-Fi access points. The platform will be available to the research community at large.

And uniquely, the research platform would rely primarily on software to test Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities, a break from the hardware-dependent platforms used by carriers today. Researchers say this is the key to the development of 6G.

“A big part of the shift from 5G to 6G is the shift from hardware infrastructure to software infrastructure,” says Dimitrios Koutsonikolas, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern.

Network providers, vendors, and academic researchers have long called for companies to move away from the proprietary hardware model and take a more “open software” approach, which involves decoupling network functionality from the underlying hardware of the systems. This new approach promotes “interoperability and programmability”, concepts which, according to Koutsonikolas, challenge the existing market paradigm.

And it’s a paradigm that can be seen in different tech industries. Take computers: Apple and Microsoft have their own operating systems, called macOS and Windows, respectively. Each software system is effectively incompatible with competing hardware. Although there are ways to overcome these limits, they are not supported by either company.

Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

These proprietary hardware limitations also exist in the world of cell phone towers, says Koutsonikolas. But those on the ground have worked to change the paradigm, especially the O-RAN Alliance, which called for “a unified interconnect standard for white box hardware and open source software elements from different vendors.”

The Northeast Cellular Platform will embody these ideals, as the researchers plan to “fully program the network architecture,” says Tommaso Melodia, William Lincoln Smith Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern and Director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things.

While 5G technology is still new and on track to be widely deployed, researchers are already looking to 6G, which will be a foundational element of nearly all industries of the company, experts say. The next generation of wireless technology is not expected until 2030, as each new generation takes around a decade to develop, Melodia says.

“We are at a time when the future of wireless communications is clearly a very important topic of discussion,” says Melodia. “This has impacts on most of the economy and has geopolitical and geostrategic value in terms of maintaining North American leadership in this space.”

John Soliven, a working study at the Institute for Wireless Internet of Things (W-IoT) monitors the Colosseum, the world's largest RF emulator with 256 programmable software radios that allows academic, government and industry researchers to perform Scalable and repeatable experiments in wireless systems in a large-scale emulation environment, at the Northeastern University Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts.

He says 6G will operate on high frequency bands, much higher than those used in previous generations of networks. Experts say these higher frequencies will dramatically increase wireless capabilities and reduce latencies, or the time it takes for a network to communicate with devices and users.

Currently, 5G operates on millimeter waves, which are short-range and easily blocked by environmental obstacles.

“The first generation to use the so-called mmWaves was 5G,” says Melodia. “But 6G will go beyond that.”

Melodia says 6G will depend on this “O-RAN” approach, or open radio access network. It will also be shaped by AI and machine learning, which are best supported by softwareization of the Wi-Fi and cellular infrastructure.

As such, the new platform would be designed to “test everything from network applications to specific waveforms used to transfer information,” says Melodia.

Funding for the project is part of the National Science Foundation’s “Major Research Instrumentation Grant”. A total of $ 2,967,986 will be spent on this effort, including about $ 1 million in matching contributions from Northeastern, Melodia said.

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