SpectrumX – Universities join forces to pursue NSF center opportunity

Four teams awarded planning grants through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) new Spectrum Innovation Initiative (SII) are merging to create a comprehensive, interdisciplinary plan for a 5-year, $25M National Center for Wireless Spectrum Research (SII-Center).

The envisioned center will catalyze a vibrant community of world-class scientists, engineers, and policy experts from academia, industry, government agencies, and regulatory authorities, creating a much-needed national platform across the spectrum ecosystem for sustained research, innovation, education, and workforce development.

Whitney Lohmeyer, assistant professor of engineering at Olin College, is enthusiastic about the prospects. “As the first engineer at OneWeb and advisor to several satellite broadband entities, I have found myself in the trenches of regulatory coexistence issues among the satellite communications, 5G terrestrial wireless, and radio astronomy communities. The SII-Center presents a tremendous opportunity to not only conduct innovative research and influence regulatory policy but also to better prepare a diverse workforce of scientists and engineers for our future.”

The merging teams include:

  • National Center for Radio Spectrum Innovations , led by Professor J. Nicholas Laneman at the University of Notre Dame and including University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Los Angeles, Clemson University, New York University, Northwestern University, and Stanford University.
  • Olin Spectrum Innovation Initiative Center, led by Lohmeyer and including Mangata Networks, LLC.
  • Wireless Hardware Innovations and Signal Processing for Enhanced Radio-astronomy and Scientific Spectrum Sharing, led by Professor Robert Weikle at the University of Virginia and including Northwestern University, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, (NRAO) and Virginia Diodes.
  • Wireless Innovation and Spectrum Evolution, led by Professor Scott Palo at the University of Colorado Boulder and including University of California San Diego, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez.

Going forward, the evolving center will be called “SpectrumX – The National Center for Spectrum Innovation,” with hubs at Colorado Boulder, Notre Dame, and Virginia. These institutions have visible collaborative teams and bring significant infrastructure, as well as industry and government relationships, to the effort. In addition to continuously recruiting from many other top universities, emphasizing inclusive excellence, and filling gaps in expertise, the team is actively obtaining feedback from and exploring partnerships with commercial industry and government agencies. A major milestone for these efforts will be the submission of a full proposal to NSF on April 1, 2021.

Specialists on the team, including several National Academy members and many IEEE and AIAA Senior Members and Fellows, are thought leaders in the areas of terrestrial wireless networks, satellite sensing and networking, environmental radar sensing, radio astronomy, and military spectrum use.

Al Gasiewski, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Center for Environmental Technology at Colorado Boulder, stresses the importance of spectrum use for environmental science. “Earth observations for both scientific understanding of the global oceans, atmosphere, land, and polar regions, as well as accurate weather forecasting that underlies our economy are critically dependent on the availability and shared use of the radio spectrum.”

Gasiewski’s expertise is in developing advanced satellite- and drone-based sensors that utilize the most sensitive radio receivers possible to measure environmental parameters such as temperature, soil moisture, winds, and rainfall. “Through this center, we will help inform coexistence requirements and enhance radio receivers for environmental sensing and wireless transmitter coordination to effectively share spectrum.”

Tom Marzetta, Distinguished Industry Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New York University and Director of NYU Wireless, adds, “Radio spectrum is a precious natural resource; you can always lay down more optical fiber, but you can never lay down more spectrum. The world will soon demand the next level of human-to-human communication — ubiquitous augmented reality (AR).

Supporting a vast number of mobile AR users, each with staggering wireless throughput and low latency, is perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by wireless engineers and scientists. It will require concerted efforts to both multiply spectral efficiency in existing spectral bands and expand operations to new frequencies.”

Also included in the team are experts in spectrum economics and regulatory policy and former members of the Senior Executive Service at the FCC and NTIA. This diverse team offers the necessary breadth and depth to facilitate dialog and more understanding across communities for transforming spectrum research.

Thomas W. Hazlett, H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, a leading spectrum economics and policy researcher and former chief fconomist at the FCC, sums up the national need and SpectrumX’s high-level strategy as follows: “The radio spectrum provides the oxygen for scientific sensing of our world, exploring the universe, protecting the nation and our allies, commercializing space, and all aspects of the mobile wireless economy.

“As application demands grow and technology developments accelerate, governments everywhere are struggling with understanding their options for allocating spectrum and selecting the best policies. Regulators seek more engagement from scientists, engineers, economists, and academic researchers with the highly specialized knowledge informing these choices, especially as new breakthroughs are developed. SpectrumX seeks to remedy a potentially dangerous gap in the policy analysis chain, so as to fundamentally advance how U.S. policy makers approach, analyze, and implement radio spectrum allocation in the decades to come.”

Tony Beasley, director of the NRAO, noted the importance of spectrum management and coexistence to the scientific research community. “A successful SII-Center will raise the visibility of spectrum coordination and regulatory processes among all key stakeholders, including the academic research, commercial and non-profit communities, and governmental bodies at all levels.

“For more than five decades, NRAO has worked toward protecting scientific uses of the spectrum as it is of fundamental importance to future scientific discoveries with instruments like the next-generation Very Large Array. We are excited about the establishment of the SII-Center as a foundation for developing methods allowing co-existence and sharing of scientific and commercial uses of this limited resource.”

According to its website and program solicitation, the NSF is supporting the SII-Center as a multidisciplinary research endeavor that will advance scientific knowledge and practice in the access, use, and measurement of wireless spectrum that will benefit society and educate and develop a workforce to support industries of the future.

A total of 17 planning grant teams were awarded funding for 12 months to enable networking and develop collaborations among potential partners, in pursuit of the creation of a larger well-organized team that can submit a SII-Center proposal.