A New Wave in Wireless Communication: The National Radio Dynamic Zone

| May 30, 2023

ISI leads an initiative in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the University of Utah (UoU) to expand spectrum access across the nation

making communication faster over wavelengths

Photo Credit: EleonImages

As the world experiences unprecedented waves of technological innovation, communication needs are multiplying. Between our smartphones, tablets, computers, and even smartwatches, it’s becoming harder for wireless communication services to meet the ever-increasing demand. 

Each new development requires more of a limited resource that makes communicating over airways possible, known as the electromagnetic spectrum. The more we innovate, the more spectrum access, or bandwidth, we need.

Scientists envision a future where we communicate through virtual reality or avatars, which would–you guessed it–require even more bandwidth to function.

Here’s the kicker–these wireless communication services are also competing with scientific activities, such as radio astronomy and climate research, for spectrum access. Right now, there’s simply not enough to go around. 

Limited spectrum availability is quite literally preventing advancements in science and the development of faster communications for society as a whole. 

We need a solution, and we need it fast. 

USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute (ISI)’s Alefiya Hussain, Idaho National Laboratory (INL)’s Arupjyoti Bhuyan, and Robert Ricci of The University of Utah (UoU), are collaborating on a proposal known as Advanced Spectrum Initiative for Research and Experimentation (ASPIRE).

ASPIRE seeks to create this bandwidth availability through a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) known as ​​Spectrum Innovation Initiative: National Radio Dynamic Zones (SII-NRDZ). The goal of SII-NRDZ is to address these issues through dynamic spectrum sharing.

The Project 

The SII-NRDZ program supports promising project proposals from spectrum sharing researchers with funding. ASPIRE received an Engineering and Execution Lead award from NSF and subsequently launched just a few months ago in January.

The project is centered around radio dynamic zones: geographically bounded areas that are able to autonomously regulate and control electromagnetic energy entering or leaving the parameters. 

Alefiya Hussain, lead researcher at ISI, said the plan is to use designated radio dynamic zones as testing sites to experiment with dynamic spectrum sharing through field trials, and look for ways that “multiple entities can harmoniously coexist.” In other words the team is finding new ways where the needs of commercial and scientific groups can be met at the same time.

“The radio dynamic zone is creating essentially these experimentation spaces for testbeds that allows us to investigate what is a good combination of frequency multiplexing or time-based multiplexing within the spectrum space to be able to effectively use it,” she said.

The Current Method

The United States has tackled the management of spectrum access through the creation of an allocation chart that segments off, in color codes, which frequencies belong to each service. It worked for decades, but now that we’re using up all of the spectrum, smoothing out inefficiencies in the chart is critical to opening up more access.

For example, with the chart an individual service can only operate in its denoted spot, which Hussain said can be wasteful because spectrum access that is available is often left unused.

“Traditionally, one entity was given that spectrum, and only they used it. There were many times when they didn’t use it, but since nobody else was allowed to use it, it goes wasted with this sort of fixed allocation mechanism,” she explained.

The goal, she said, is to have a more “dynamic, flexible allocation” so that one day, the chart can be replaced by a self-regulating radio dynamic zone that both allocates spectrum access more efficiently and redistributes it to meet immediate needs.

The United States currently has a National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) in Virginia where radio astronomy takes place.This protects experimental activities that need to pick up tiny astronomy signals from interference. Hussain said the NRQZ is basically a “radio vacuum” where the use of any sort of wireless device–through phones, bluetooth, WiFi, and other means–is banned. 

The NRQZ creates space for passive experimentation, whereas the NRDZ would allow for active experimentation.

Think about it this way: you’re in a room with a large group of people talking loudly among themselves. The NRQZ scenario involves silencing everybody nearby so you are able to hear conversations far away. Alternatively, the second scenario (NRDZ) is if you were able to listen to every conversation that is occurring by sharing space effectively–so that everyone can talk at the right time. 

The Vision: A National Radio Dynamic Zone

After experimenting with regional field trials and finding out what works and what doesn’t, the big picture objective is to take the information gathered from rigorous testing to create a permanent, national experimentation facility, somewhere in the United States. 

The NRDZ would tackle coexistence and maximize utility through dynamic spectrum sharing, while also opening up a new avenue to support the next generation of spectrum science through active experimentation. 

The average person would see an improvement in the speed and communication abilities of their devices while the scientific community would gain bandwidth for their cutting edge projects. It’s a win-win.

The new science made possible with the spectrum includes radio astronomy and remote sensing, which Hussain said will involve advancements in environmental sciences, such as climate monitoring in urban areas that could help scientists “observe phenomena they had not observed before.”

Hussain noted that the NRDZ aims to provide “larger protections for next generation telescopes” that are being built currently and going to be deployed in the future. These telescopes are highly sensitive and necessitate this spectrum innovation.

Green Lights Ahead

The project is still in its early stages. In fact, the team is currently in Phase I–designing field trials. Phase II involves actually conducting the trials in regional radio dynamic zones. 

The spectrum allocation chart, although it worked great for the last 20 years, is no longer able to meet society’s wireless communication demands. We are in urgent need of a new, more effective method of spectrum management, and the national radio dynamic zone could be just what the doctor ordered.

The task ahead is not an easy feat, but the implications have the potential to transform spectrum solutions for the better. Hussain said the project will “require not only technological support but also legislative support to include breakthroughs in economic, social, and behavioral sciences as well.” 

It looks like in this case Plato might have been right–necessity is in fact the mother of invention. Society needs better spectrum sharing ability–ASPIRE is setting out to create it. 

Published on May 30th, 2023

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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