NYU Wireless director looks at 6G, beyond Massive MIMO

Thomas Marzetta, the new director of NYU Wireless, knows he has big shoes to fill following in the steps of NYU Wireless founder Ted Rappaport, who announced his departure last month.

“It goes without saying it’s a great honor,” Marzetta told FierceWirelessTech. But he’s up to the task and hopes to introduce some innovative ideas.  

NYU Wireless announced the change last month, when Rappaport said he will be taking time for a “victory lap” with his wife to make up for lost time due to his recovery from acute myeloid leukemia in 2015. For about three years, Sundeep Rangan served as director until Rappaport returned in 2018.

Given the school’s reputation, there’s little reason to look for big changes. “It’s been supremely successful, of course, so we don’t want to tamper with things that work,” Marzetta said. The question is, can they grow NYU Wireless to be bigger and maybe better, due to sheer size if nothing else, than before?

One way to do that is to invest in still bolder, riskier research going into the future, engaging more closely with other NYU engineering departments to seek out novel problems and applications. Marzetta already is focusing on 6G and within a research initiative that he calls “Beyond Massive MIMO,” he’s investigating entirely new principles of operation that could result in wireless systems performing at previously unimaginable levels.

Coming up with new ideas shouldn’t be too hard given that Marzetta is the originator of Massive MIMO antenna technology that is being deployed in 5G networks today—and it wasn’t that long ago when his thinking was considered rather radical. He was recently recognized by the Radio Club of America (RCA) with the 2019 Armstrong Medal for this achievements and contributions to radio arts and sciences.

RELATED: Massive MIMO inventor Marzetta takes over leadership of NYU Wireless from Rappaport

Marzetta can talk extensively about the accomplishments of Edwin Armstrong, who amassed dozens of patents and came up with the superheterodyne radio receiver circuit, which is used extensively today. Marzetta gave an Armstrong Memorial talk at Columbia several years ago. While a distinguished inventor, Armstrong was embroiled in patent litigation for most of his life, ultimately with RCA over wide-band FM, and took his own life in 1954.

For Marzetta, Bell Labs was possibly the only place where he could have originated Massive MIMO. The tradition at Bell Labs was to try to get really good people and turn them loose to see what happened. He was fortunate to be assigned to the mathematical sciences research center, where, even though he’s not a mathematician—he’s an electrical engineer—he was able to thrive. The math center was independent of the wireless division, which was under pressure to help solve shorter term problems; the math center was isolated to a great extent and thereby he was free to challenge the status quo and innovate.

Full slate

Looking ahead, Marzetta said he’s interested in pursuing new applications for wireless, which are not only new per se, but ideally require new research. Basically, he’s looking for tough problems to solve that no one else has figured out. He’s also planning to spend more time with NYU’s medical school to learn where wireless can have a greater impact there.

RELATED: Inventor of Massive MIMO technology didn’t always want to call it that

Massive MIMO still has a ways to go before it runs out of steam. However, Marzetta is looking at exploring entirely new principles by which to design new wireless systems, and by that he means using new physical principles. Today’s wireless systems are grounded in 19th century notions of fundamental limitations of electromechanical propagation and he’s interested in turning that on its head, so to speak.

NYU Wireless has about 15 faculty and 40 students, and they need to choose their work carefully. A company like Nokia, which is an industry affiliate to NYU Wireless, has hundreds of people to assign to problems, so the university has to pick problem areas that its affiliate members aren’t working on.

Already, students at NYU Wireless are trying to push the carrier frequencies from millimeter wave to terahertz, and they’re conducting experiments all the way up to 240 THz or so, where they may find ways to free up new spectrum. According to Rappaport, breakthroughs in THz research, quantum computing and nanotechnology have opened exciting new vistas for the future of electrical and computer engineering—areas where NYU already has made major investments. So it would seem that tradition will continue under new leadership.