PAWR program completes first phase of advanced research test bed

Over the past year, researchers at the University of Utah have been busy developing hardware prototypes, taking RF measurements and positioning antennas on rooftops to prepare for what amounts to a big sandbox for folks who want to experiment with the latest and greatest in wireless.

It’s all part of the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, funded by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of 29 industry partners, which this week announced the completion of the first phase of deployment of an advanced wireless research test bed in Salt Lake City, Utah. The test bed boasts end-to-end programmability of radio and edge compute resources, offering researchers the ability to test groundbreaking communications technologies, and to develop their own applications in a variety of virtual network environments.

It’s tied to a longer-term effort with the University of Utah’s Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research, which corresponds to the geographically appropriate acronym POWDER, and from Rice University’s Reconfigurable Ecosystem for Next-gen End-to-end Wireless (RENEW). The effort also includes partners from Salt Lake City and the state of Utah.

According to Jacobus Van der Merwe, principal investigator on the POWDER-RENEW project and associate professor at the University of Utah, the test bed marks an important step forward for wireless research in the U.S., moving beyond the normal silos to bring together university researchers, industry innovators and local communities that will build future smart cities with this kind of technology.

Van der Merwe declined to name specific spectrum bands that are part of the project but did say that the equipment is capable of covering essentially anything under 6 GHz, which includes the traditional cellular bands and vehicular-related communications. It’s not millimeter wave; there’s a related project called COSMOS in New York City that’s using that, but efforts are underway to accommodate a "bring your own device" scenario that could include millimeter wave.

RELATED: Salt Lake City, New York City to support wireless test beds that go beyond 5G

The PAWR program is supported by $50 million from NSF over seven years and another $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions from the PAWR Industry Consortium, which includes the four major wireless carriers in the U.S., as well as equipment vendors, device manufacturers and software development companies.

Academics and companies have done a lot of research in separate labs, much of which involved re-doing some of the same kind of experiments, noted Bill Wallace, executive director of US Ignite, which operates the PAWR Project Office with Northeastern University. Part of the NSF’s motivation is to eliminate redundant experiments.

The goal in this case was to create up to four platforms of a diverse nature that could be used to lead the country into the wireless future, and the Salt Lake City project is one of the four. COSMOS is another one, and two more that are yet to be announced are expected to have more of an application focus. 

The Utah institution also is partnering with Rice University in Texas, which brings a lot of expertise in Massive MIMO. A 64-antenna system is close to being deployed; some equipment was damaged in transit or it would have been deployed by now, according to Van der Merwe. With that system, users will be able to test operations on base stations that use hundreds of antennas serving many users on the same frequency and have the potential to deliver speeds at 100 times the rate of wireless networks today.

In some ways, it’s almost a perfect storm that’s happening in the sense there are a lot of open source initiatives right now and many of them are overlapping if not competing, and it’s unclear what’s going to win out. The PAWR platform is an ideal place to conduct development, testing and evaluation in a realistic environment; it's got the entire framework to put it all together, according to Van der Merwe.

With all the talk of opening up the RAN, it’s also an ideal environment to explore the ramifications of doing that.

“We have the means to enable the experimentation to figure out what would work under what conditions,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

It can also be the platform for researchers interested in delving into 5G New Radio, and how it reacts to modifications, or how a 5G slice would enable very low latency and high reliability. It could also provide the platform for examining how NFV would play into multiple 5G slices and how that’s orchestrated.

On the roadmap at the Salt Lake campus is a dense deployment, targeting things like C-V2X that require more street level sites; that will require more base stations, and it’s part of the plan to facilitate research in that space.