No more bandwidth? Bernhard works to head off a looming electromagnetic spectrum crisis

ECE News

Shawn Adderly, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • ECE Professor Jennifer Bernhard served a principal investigator for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Workshop on Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum.
  • The workshop tackled the looming electromagnetic spectrum crisis, which is nearing capacity in several spectrum bands.
  • The report resulting from the workshop outlines suggestions for research that could address the spectrum crisis.

Although the U.S. economic crisis has been at the forefront of policy discussion, the country is also facing a looming electromagnetic spectrum crisis, with some bands in the spectrum reaching near capacity in some locations. The electromagnetic spectrum is used for multiple purposes, including wireless communications, radar, and scientific research. It is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Union in the U.S., and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) worldwide. According to the report recently released from the workshop held last August in Arlington, Virginia, the impact of wireless technology on the U.S. economy is estimated to be near one trillion dollars annually, highlighting the importance of this issue.

Jennifer Bernhard
Jennifer Bernhard

In order to address the problems facing future spectrum use, the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked ECE Professor [profile:jberhnar], along with Professors Jeff Reed and Jung-Ming Park of Virginia Tech, to organize a workshop on the issue. The workshop helped outline a research agenda to move the country forward and to lead the country in developing new layers of technology that allow spectrum sharing, increase spectrum access in rural areas, and protect our national interests.

“As usage of the spectrum increases, users may not be able to utilize the spectrum in the ways that they expect to,” Bernhard said. “This is why action has to be taken now so researchers, the government, and people in industry can begin figuring out ways to tackle these problems.”

The 45 workshop attendees were invited from the federal government, regulatory bodies, academia, and corporations in order to get a diverse opinion on what types of innovations need to take place to prepare the electromagnetic spectrum for the future.

“We strived to invite a broad cross section of stakeholders,” Bernhard said, “because the solutions to the problems facing the spectrum will require a collective effort.”

The Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Meredith Attwell-Baker, a Commissioner of the FCC, spoke at the workshop about President Obama’s request to make more of the spectrum available for wireless broadband.

The final report of the Workshop on Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum, which ECE Professor Jennifer Bernhard helped organize, was recently published by the NSF.
The final report of the Workshop on Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum, which ECE Professor Jennifer Bernhard helped organize, was recently published by the NSF.

While the workshop focused on several issues such as setting spectrum standards and opening up more of the spectrum for public safety, the issues of over-capacity and spectrum allocation were very hot topics.

“The reason the spectrum is running out of capacity is not only because there are more users on a certain band,” Bernhard said, “but people are also developing devices that are using more bandwidth.”

Bernhard said that building more cell-phone towers to solve the capacity problem is not a sustainable solution, which is why attendees at the workshop looked at developing new ways to share the spectrum without interfering with another.

“We need to think about how to share spectrum more efficiently, enable higher throughput and higher performance links in general,” Bernhard said. “It is a more complicated research and development problem that has not been put before the research community yet.”

Frequency allocations were also a complex issue that the workshop tried to address since changing frequency allocations in the national spectrum also has international implications.

“Every time we change a frequency allocation we not only have to change it internally as a nation,” Bernhard said, “but we also have to go to the ITU and also negotiate spectrum use, and make sure that we are not going to be interfering with a system somewhere else in the world.”

Although Bernhard prefers to stay on the technical side of the issues facing the spectrum, she acknowledges that learning about the policy side of spectrum management was quite the experience.

“As a researcher you think about how to design hardware to enable new levels of functionality and not the policy side of things,” she said. “From the workshop I’ve learned a great deal about the whole process of spectrum allocation and the internal and external battles along with technical issues.”

Now that workshop report is published, NSF program managers will use it as a guide to further develop research strategies and initiatives to tackle the difficult technical, social, and economic issues surrounding future spectrum use.

A PDF version of the workshop final report is available from the NSF here.

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