(TNS) -- The city of South Bend, Ind., and University of Notre Dame plan to seek up to $20 million in federal grants that would make the city one of four nationally to test the next generation of wireless technology.
The city and university hope to become a “5G testbed,” meaning the National Science Foundation would choose South Bend for real-world, city-scale testing of cutting-edge wireless research from academic and private laboratories. City leaders hope that local network would draw new tech employers to the area.
As part of the White House Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, the NSF plans over the next five years to award $85 million in the grants to four testbed cities. In announcing the initiative in July, the agency invited representatives of four cities to an event in Washington, D.C.: New York City, Washington, Kansas City and South Bend, said Santiago Garces, who made the trip and represented South Bend as the city’s chief innovation officer.
“It’s pretty cool,” Garces said. “It’s a high honor. We’re the little guy in the room but we’re punching above our weight.”
Notre Dame information technology researcher J. Nicholas Laneman, who attended the July event with Garces, said the city's history of working with the university to commercialize academic research could give it a leg up against other cities competing for the grant. For example, under the Mayor Steve Luecke administration, the city partnered with Notre Dame researchers in 2004 to implement wireless sewer sensors that reduce combined sewer overflows into the St. Joseph River, leading to the formation of a South Bend-based company called EmNET that now has municipal clients around the country.
The city and Notre Dame also were among the earliest members of MetroLab Network, a national effort of more than 35 regional city-university partnerships for innovation.
"There seems to be a general awareness of South Bend as a progressive city along these sorts of lines," said Laneman, an electrical engineering professor and co-director of Notre Dame's Wireless Institute.
While EmNET used existing wireless technology in a new way, entirely new technologies would be developed locally if South Bend is chosen, Laneman said. He said South Bend would be like a test track facility for automotive engineers. The NSF would award grants to researchers from other universities and private labs, enabling them to bring technology they have tested in their small-scale labs to South Bend for testing on a city-scale.
Up to 25 access devices would be placed throughout the city, likely on city-owned structures, that would support 100 programmable mobile devices in need of testing. In terms of short-term economic impact, this would likely create around 10 high-tech jobs, while also frequently bringing researchers to town, Laneman said.
But once that infrastructure and knowledge base is in place locally, the city hopes to be positioned competitively as a testing ground for future generations of wireless technology. The city and university are calling the project "SBXG," where the "x" is a variable representing the next generation, whether it be fifth, sixth or beyond, Garces said.
The longer-term prospects have Mayor Pete Buttigieg excited.
"It definitely would put us a step ahead and be a great selling point for newcomers," Buttigieg said.
The mayor said South Bend is arguing for the need to have one of the four cities be a smaller metro area.
"We're big enough to have the complexities that a big city faces, and yet we're small enough to be nimble and creative," Buttigieg said. "When you want to bring technology to scale, it's certainly helpful to have one of the cities be our size. At the end of the day, there are many more cities like South Bend than New York."
While the NSF has yet to formally solicit grant proposals, Notre Dame and the city are planning for that to happen this spring. They would submit their application around June, with the winners being named about six months later.
Laneman said he largely agrees with how Ericcson, the global information technology communications giant, has described the evolution of wireless technology thus far: 1G was about voice, 2G was voice and text, 3G was voice, texting and data, and 4G was everything in 3G but faster. 5G is envisioned as everything in 4G but faster, plus entirely new uses yet to be imagined: everything from driverless vehicles to internet-linked traffic signals, the so-called "Internet of Things."
The United States led the way in developing the first three generations, but Europe took the lead in 4G, thanks largely to more concerted cooperation between academia and the private sector, Laneman said. The NSF's new initiative aims to recapture U.S. leadership in 5G.
"Before NSF was giving a lot of money to small-scale labs," Laneman said. "What's been missing is that large-scale testbed."
South Bend area residents wouldn't have access to the technology while it's being tested, but they could take pride in knowing new products are being tested and developed locally, along with the potential jobs it could bring. If they win the grant, Laneman envisions ultimately reaching out to local schools and encouraging them to incorporate new 5G technology, such as virtual reality.
"I think South Bend would become a hub for high-tech prototyping in this wireless space," he said.
©2016 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.