Self-driving cars in Salt Lake City? Downtown chosen to be lab for ‘smart city’ wireless technology

(Courtesy University of Utah) Kobus Van der Merwe, associate professor in the University of Utah’s School of Computing and co-director of the school’s Flux Research Group, is leading the team that will build a wireless-technology testbed in downtown Salt Lake City. The testbed will allow researchers to road-test the next generation of wireless devices, from high-speed data transfers to autonomous vehicles.

The next generation of wireless technology is coming, promising everything from faster data to self-driving cars — and Salt Lake City is one of the first stops.

A section of downtown Salt Lake City is one of two sites nationwide chosen to host a city-scale advanced wireless testbed, in a program devised by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of 28 networking companies and associations. The choice was announced Monday morning.

“We want to make sure researchers here in the U.S. have an opportunity to test outdoors, at scale in a real urban environment, some of the innovations that we know will be part of the wireless networks of the future,” said Joe Kochan, program director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program.

The testbed will cover an area from West Temple to the University of Utah campus and from 2nd Avenue to 500 South. Kochan said there also will be 60 wireless nodes on university buses and city-owned vehicles.

The test area won’t mean much to consumers, at least not yet. It’s a place for researchers to take technology out of the lab and road-test it, Kochan said.

Kochan said the wireless industry already envisions the 5G networks that will succeed the 4G LTE now used on mobile devices — but this testbed “is even beyond 5G.”

“The wireless networks we think we’ll need in the future, they’ll need to be obviously faster and higher capacity, because demand is ever increasing,” Kochan said.

Beyond that, he added, they will need new technical characteristics, including technology to handle sensors to guide autonomous vehicles, and higher security to protect more sensitive data.

Researchers from the University of Utah — led by Kobus Van der Merwe, associate professor in the School of Computing — and Houston’s Rice University are leading the team building the testbed.

The U. cites Van der Merwe’s Flux Computing Group as one reason Salt Lake City was chosen to be a test site. Another reason is a collaboration of local partners, including the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) and the U.’s internet technology department providing fiber infrastructure and monitoring, and an assortment of tech firms providing equipment, software and platform services.

“We have a strong set of partners. These are people who said, ‘I buy into this vision,’” Van der Merwe said in a statement from the U. “They saw the potential that this could be really big for Utah.”

Another is being built in a square-mile space in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, by teams from Rutgers University, Columbia University and New York University. A new round of applications will be conducted to pick two more locations.

The four testbed sites will be built for an estimated $100 million, the funds coming from public and private sources, and managed by the PAWR Project Office.

“We want to build this thing so that one day it looks like a cellular network, then tomorrow it looks like an autonomous-vehicle network, and the day after that it can look like something a military wireless system might use,” Van der Merwe said. “You need that flexibility built into the infrastructure.”

Much of this new wireless technology, Kochan said, is “not only just on your cellphone, but will be embedded into complex municipal infrastructure, as part of this concept of a smarter city.”

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