As part of a new initiative led by the National Science Foundation, several cities will serve as testbeds for next-generation communication technologies.

The NSF’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative has named Salt Lake City and New York City as the first of four testbed cities.

The idea behind the testbeds — a project expected to run for the next five to 10 years — is to foster the kinds of research and testing to support smart cities, autonomous cars, virtual reality and more.

“One of the things that the U.S. has greatly benefited from in the last 20 years has been our leadership in wireless,” said Thyaga Nandagopal, deputy division director at the National Science Foundation. “And what we have seen is the economy of the United States has benefited significantly from those technologies coming to market.

“And there is a risk going on with Europe and China, where they are trying to emulate us and take the lead in 5G. Because, No.1, they see that wireless is going to be the way that people are going to access information — no matter where we are — in the future,” he added.

The NSF is partnering with private companies to fund the $100 million project.

“So our members are all coming in with like ... $1 million or $2 million contributions, so cumulatively it's about a $50 million investment. And the NSF then matched that with $50 million,” said Nandagopal.

The NSF is looking at what it calls the “future piece” of wireless communication.

“We are looking at what comes next,” said Nandagopal. “We want to predict the future, we want to create the future.”

The research team in Salt Lake City, being led by the University of Utah and Rice University in Houston, will explore what is known as Massive MIMO, (multi-input, multi-output) an essential component of both 5G and “beyond 5G wireless networks,” according to the proposal.

“These are technologies with a lot of potential,” said Nandagopal.

To be able to test and verify the Massive MIMO technology on a large scale “is something that industry is really salivating over,” he added.

The University of Utah and Rice University will receive $17.5 million from the PAWR Project and up to $10 million in services and equipment from the PAWR industry consortium to build and operate the platform in Salt Lake City for the first five years.

“Mobile and wireless is where it’s at,” said University of Utah School of Computing Associate Professor Kobus Van der Merwe in a statement.

“We have multiple radio technologies and different applications coming. All of those things need platforms to experiment on, to prototype on, to explore,” said Van der Merwe, who is leading the team that will build and operate the Salt Lake City platform. “We have 5G coming.”

A number of new software-configurable radio antennae will form the testbed, located on the 2.3-square-mile campus and along 1.2 square miles of downtown Salt Lake City. The testbed will also include the two-mile stretch between the two — altogether, an area home to about 40,000 residents. The antennae, also called “nodes,” will have the ability to simulate different communication technologies such as 4G or 5G.

“They have a university, which is a small city, in and of itself. But it really can’t be argued to be city-scale,” said Gregory Daly, chief information officer for Salt Lake City. “So their idea was to promote the creation of city-scaled testbeds. And that’s where the city itself, or a very large geography, is a testbed for research and development, tinkering, proving ideas, proving then that they work, and to do them with mobility and all the things that wireless technology implies,” said Daly.

In New York the testbed project will receive $22.5 million, and will be located across one square mile in West Harlem, a dense urban neighborhood, where researchers from Columbia University, Rutgers University and New York University will partner with the city, the University of Arizona, City College of New York, and Silicon Harlem, an organization charged with growing technology and innovation in Harlem.

Much of the research will center on millimeter-wave radio communications, which has the potential to open up more bandwidth to support, say, higher-quality media and video content.

“And millimeter-wave research, as you can see, is one of the new frontiers that opened up with the FCC,” said Nandagopal. “So that was a huge thing. Everyone, from industry to academia, is super stoked about that area."

The wireless communication research in New York, Salt Lake City and two yet-to-be-named locations will be largely up and going in the next year or two and then run for at least five years. It is all part of a larger mission to ensure the United States remains a leader in this sector.

“The goal for the NSF is not only to create a thriving partnership where academics can showcase their ideas to industry and help drive the conversation around technology leadership being continued, but also to essentially create a new future where technologies never known before will come to light,” said Nandagopal.

“We want to help the United States continue to be a technology leader and innovator,” said Daly. “And a winning competitor on a global scale. We think that it has obvious economic development advantages for Salt Lake City, to be known as a place where technology, innovation and research happens.”