Field Report from the 5G Frontier

The public typically equates third-generation or fourth-generation (more widely known as 3G or 4G) devices with smartphones, but insiders understand that the terms refer to the advancements engineers and manufacturers have made in wireless transmission technologies. Keen to find out what the 5G frontier looks like, savvy newshounds gathered last month at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life in Manhattan for “Beyond 4G: The Future of Wireless,” an event that promised to portend what’s in store for all things wireless, be they smartphones, cars or hospital visits.

Giving them the details was a panel of nine professors representing various departments from NYU’s School of Medicine, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly). Facilitated by Kurt Becker, associate provost for research and technology initiatives at NYU-Poly, the small, invitation-only event gave the audience — comprised of reporters from outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and Reuters — direct access to leaders in the wireless communications industry.

Why we need fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology

Shiv Panwar, director of NYU-Poly’s Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications (CATT), contextualized the event when he explained how traffic on wireless networks has been doubling annually. “Current 4G technology will not be able to accommodate this rapid increase,” he said. “4G adoption and rollout have been accelerated by this huge demand of traffic coming from consumers.”

Indeed, as a study commissioned this year by digital media company Local Corporation indicates, 60 percent of shoppers conduct research about their purchases via mobile phone. That means more and more of us are using our phones to compare prices, read consumer reviews, or take photos of the shoes or sweater we covet. So, as demand for richer and richer content experiences — 3D games, say, or the latest viral YouTube video — rises, the physical and digital infrastructure threatens to buckle beneath us.

Ted Rappaport, director of Wireless Internet Center for Advanced Technology (WICAT), outlined another facet of the problem: “You’ve got someone trying to use Netflix with a modern phone, and then you have someone else who’s got an old phone and whenever they use their phone, it clogs up the network.” That’s why wireless carriers constantly offer customers deals on higher-grade phones: It improves the collective wireless experience when more of us use the same technology.

Academics lead the charge

Those higher-grade phones signify the improvements industry and academia are constantly making to existing products and concepts. In fact, according to Rappaport, “usually there’s academic work going on in these areas that eventually makes its way into the industry ten or fifteen years later.” In short: Academics are leading the charge in wireless developments.

So what exactly are they studying and discovering? Better physician and patient experiences, for one. Daniel Sodickson, director of NYU’s Langone Center for Biomedical Imaging, brought up the possibilities heralded by compressed sensing.

“Previously, you had to know what was in the image before you compressed it,” he said, but with compressed sensing, “we can acquire much less data and go much, much faster and still get the full image content.” That means shorter stays in full-body MRI scanners and better digital photos. 

Elza Erkip, a professor in NYU-Poly’s electrical and computer engineering department, spoke about the research in cooperative communications that originated at NYU-Poly allowing resources to be shared among multiple radios. She hinted at the possibility of “body-sensor networks” that would allow patients in remote locations to affix devices onto themselves to transmit information about their physical condition to doctors to receive diagnostic advice.

Her colleague in the same department, Yao Wang, alerted attendees to the new high efficiency video coding standards being developed today. The standards will “achieve the same quality at half the bit rate,” Wang said. “That means, of course, more efficient delivery of video over networks and also saving storage space.”

The presentations prompted a number of questions from attendees, who asked about a range of topics, including content production in developing nations and efforts around extending the battery life of wireless devices.

One audience member asked the panel for their thoughts on the recent report from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which suggested that 95 MHz of the bandwidth currently reserved for federal agencies may be available for commercial mobile service.

“I believe we will go that way in the next decade,” responded Rappaport. “Things take a long time. There are regulatory hurdles. The industry has to get comfortable, but I do believe that’s one of the future horizons of wireless.”

For more news on the future of wireless, he told the audience to stay tuned for a public announcement within the next three months about NYU WIRELESS, an initiative that will link researchers of NYU and NYU-Poly with those in the industry.