NSF establishes SpectrumX, the first U.S. center for wireless spectrum research

The National Science Foundation is doling out $25 million over five years to establish SpectrumX, a U.S. spectrum innovation center focused on developing new ways to share and manage radio airwaves to maximize the limited resource.

The University of Notre Dame is leading a coalition of 27 universities that make up the collaborative hub, with an initial funding award of about $7.47 million. It represents the first federal funding for a national center on wireless spectrum management.

Along with spectrum management and sharing, the center aims to act as a central point where stakeholders such as researchers, industry participants and government agencies can collaborate. Another aim is to educate and develop a diverse workforce to support future industries that rely heavily on wireless technologies, according to the funding award.

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SpectrumX is particularly focused on public good use cases for science and defense. One goal is ensuring the U.S. has leadership in future wireless technologies and systems by efficiently sharing spectrum resources.

The announcement doesn’t call out specific technologies or frequencies for radio spectrum research but it’s worth noting that early initiatives focused on 6G wireless systems are already underway in other regions including Europe’s flagship 6G project Hexa-X. In the U.S. NSF is distributing around $40 million under its Resilient and Intelligent Next-Generation Systems (RINGS) program unveiled in April, with an eye on 6G. 5G has seen the use of high-band millimeter wave spectrum and 6G might tap super-high terahertz frequencies (although where exactly those start is up for debate).

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Specifically, the funding award said SpectrumX’s initial research strategy will pursue receiver hardware with interference measurement and mitigation capabilities; radio spectrum in terms of advanced sensing networks; collecting and sharing accurate regulatory, usage, and economic data; flexible use rights; and distributed, data-rich and cloud-ready system designs to use and manage spectrum more efficiently.

Funding for the center falls under the Spectrum Innovation Initiative, which involves cooperation by the NSF, with support National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – agencies that have had their own disagreements over spectrum in the past.

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"The United States has been a global leader in the science of spectrum for decades, and the launch of SpectrumX promises to fuel new innovations that will help us meet our national goals and the ever-increasing demand for spectrum," said Acting NTIA Administrator Evelyn Remaley. "We look forward to collaborating with NSF to provide support and subject-matter expertise for the development of this exciting new Spectrum Innovation Center."

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel congratulated Notre Dame and the NSF for launching the project.

"Exploring creative mechanisms for spectrum management that will support new wireless technologies is a central focus of the FCC’s work – and this forward-looking innovation center will enhance our capacity to fulfill this mission,” Rosenworcel stated. “I look forward to working with the SpectrumX coalition partners, thank NSF and NTIA for their continued collaborative approach to our shared spectrum work and common goals of serving the American people, and I reiterate our agency’s commitment to supporting the SII program."

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Maximizing limited spectrum resources for different use cases is of interest to regulators and policymakers, as well as carriers who continue to deploy 5G networks in the U.S.

Under direction from Congress, the FCC next month is holding its third mid-band spectrum auction, with licenses in the 3.45-3.55 GHz up for grabs.

For the 3.45 band, there are places known as Cooperative Planning Areas (CPAs) and Periodic Use Areas (PUAs), where license winners will need to coordinate with incumbent federal military users who need to maintain or utilize the spectrum either at the specified location or during certain periods of time.