CRC's Grand Challenges

The Communications Research Centre's Grand Challenges projects are designed to tackle fundamental problems facing our wireless future. Much of CRC's R&D is performed in pursuit of its three Grand Challenges: spectrum environment awareness; making better use of spectrum; and breaking the frequency barrier.

Innovation for our wireless world

The radio frequency (RF) spectrum is invisible to us. Despite this, these invisible waves are critical to our daily lives and Canada's prosperity. Whether texting a friend, navigating by GPS, landing in a commercial aircraft or waiting for an ambulance to arrive in response to a 911 call, you are depending on wireless communications that are carried by waves in the RF spectrum.

Who manages the spectrum?

In Canada, the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada manages the spectrum. Some bands are licensed. Your cellphone carrier, for example, has a license giving them exclusive use of a specific band of the spectrum. Other bands are designated unlicensed, giving anyone with the right equipment access to them. Baby monitors, garage door openers, radio-controlled toys and your home WiFi all use unlicensed spectrum.

The spectrum crunch

Over the next 10 years, the number of devices requiring wireless network connectivity—everything from your refrigerator to self-driving cars—is expected to increase exponentially. Not only will there be more devices connected through the Internet of Things (IofT), but consumers are demanding that their devices deliver more information, more quickly, requiring even more spectrum. But the RF spectrum is a limited resource. A specific band can only carry so much information, and not all bands can be used for commercial mobile communications that are so rapidly expanding.

To avoid a spectrum crisis we need to: better understand how our spectrum is currently being used; find new ways to manage our existing spectrum and; develop innovative technologies that open up new bands of spectrum for commercial mobile communications.

The Communications Research Centre Grand Challenges projects are designed to tackle these fundamental problems facing our wireless future.

Big Data Analytics Centre

By 2021, the International Telecommunications Union predicts that there will be well over 1 billion devices communicating via the RF spectrum. CRC's new Big Data Analytics Centre gives government and researchers, for the first time, the ability to visualize huge spectrum-use data-sets in near real-time. This innovative way of delivering the data gives researchers a state-of-the-art tool to understand how the spectrum is used and where improvements can be made.

The three Grand Challenges

Spectrum environment awareness

How do we currently use the spectrum? The truth is, we don't know. CRC researchers are working to develop a prototype system that will monitor and analyze spectrum usage in real time, a necessary first step in moving toward better management of the resource.

Spectrum crunch

With the explosion in demand for wireless services, many experts predict that we will face a spectrum crunch in the next 5 to 10 years. A vital first step in finding solutions to the dwindling amount of available spectrum is to understand our current spectrum usage: What spectrum is being used? When is it being used? Where is it being used? And are the networks running efficiently?

SEA prototype

But to answer these seemingly simple questions requires an extremely complex system, one capable of monitoring, then analyzing, billions of signals, sent over multiple frequencies in a geographic area the size of Canada. On top of that, to be truly useful the system must deliver the information to the user quickly, tracking the changing usage minute by minute, and provide answers to the user in a form that is easy to interpret.

CRC's Spectrum Environment Awareness (SEA) Grand Challenge project is developing the first-ever system designed to deliver near real-time information on spectrum use to spectrum researchers and managers. The initial goal is to develop a prototype that will provide detailed information on spectrum use in the National Capital Region. The team will then expand the coverage to other Canadian urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. With a viable proof-of-concept in hand, SEA can then act as a model for the development of large-scale spectrum monitoring systems by governments or industry.

A SEA of sensors

On one end of the SEA system is a network of sensors—some mobile and some fixed—that collect information on spectrum use. These include special apps located on cellphones, existing fixed communications towers and mobile sensors located on moving vehicles like cars, buses, or trucks.

On the other end of the system is the user—for example a spectrum manager—who needs timely information on spectrum usage in a specific area. Between the two is a cluster of software tools that manage the interaction between the user and the sensors, first interpreting the user's query, translating it into instructions for the sensor network, then collecting the sensor data, analyzing it and delivering it to the user in a format they can understand.

How SEA works

If, for example, a spectrum manager receives complaints of interference in GPS reception in Vancouver's downtown core between 9 am and 10 am, they would send a query to SEA. SEA translates the user query into simple instructions for the sensor network, telling it to turn on all sensors in that area, that record in the proper frequency range, between 9 am and 10 am. The sensors then stream their data to SEA software tools that compile and analyse the information. Finally, SEA converts the data into visual representations that the user can quickly interpret.

Once completed, the prototype SEA system will be a worldwide first in spectrum monitoring and place Canada at the forefront of spectrum monitoring technology.

Making better use of spectrum

Can we use our spectrum more efficiently? CRC researchers are developing innovative technologies and techniques for making better use of the spectrum through, for example, spectrum and network sharing.

In 2017, Canadians sent over 43 petabytes of mobile data every month. By 2020, expertsFootnote 1 expect that amount to increase to over 186 petabytes: 46 million DVDs of mobile data per month.

Researchers with the CRC are studying new ways to pack more networks, services and devices onto our existing RF spectrum through the Making Better Use of Spectrum (MBUS) Grand Challenge. In particular, researchers with this project are examining how new technologies (for example, new mobile phones) that are designed to sense and exploit unused spectrum can be integrated into our current mobile-technology mix without disrupting existing systems. The researchers are looking at:

  • new ways to measure spectrum sharing,
  • what rules need to be in place to minimize interference,
  • how we can best allocate spectrum to support spectrum-sharing.

Phase 1: WiFi and cellular

WiFi and cellular channels diagram

In the first phase of MBUS, researchers are using complex computer models to simulate WiFi and cellular networks in multiple scenarios where they share spectrumFootnote 2. For example, they are modelling the behaviour of WiFi and cellular networks within a busy airport terminal, and examining how, when and where interference occurs. The researchers manipulate the model to simulate different solutions to reduce interference, then they carefully examine the outcomes. These solutions may include, for example, imposing new 'etiquette' rules on networks that give "polite" devices more time to send their data on the network. An example of a "polite" device would be a mobile phone designed to reduce its power level to avoid interfering with neighbouring devices.

While studying the interference between WiFi and cellular networks as the first phase of MBUS, the researchers are also developing the tools they will need to analyze the impact of new spectrum-sharing technologies on existing networks, the next step in the MBUS program.

Dynamic spectrum sharing

In phases 2 and 3 of MBUS, researchers will investigate 'dynamic spectrum sharing.' In other words, they will examine the technologies and rules we need in place to move from our traditional licensed/unlicensed model of allocating spectrum to a truly dynamic system where intelligent devices and networks sense, select and make use of any free spectrum at any given time. A critical part of this research is ensuring that, as we move to more spectrum-sharing, those companies or groups with licensed swaths spectrum are protected from interference by spectrum-sharing devices.

By finding new ways to use our current spectrum more efficiently, CRC researchers are developing the tools Canada will need to fully exploit our wireless future.

Breaking the frequency barrier

Can we open up new bands of spectrum for commercial mobile communications? CRC researchers are studying advanced technologies, such as new antennas and engineered surfaces, that will allow us to open up new swaths of spectrum for future commercial mobile communications.

Wireless communications technology now touches more areas of our lives than we could have imagined 10 years ago. We search the web while walking on a village street, telephone friends when bussing home from work, send photographs to social media sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake; and these are just a few of the modern advances that rely on wireless communications.

Facing the spectrum crunch

Between the expansion in mobile communications services and the huge influx of wireless devices entering the market, however, we are rapidly running out of mobile-communications spectrum with the capacity (bandwidth) to carry the onslaught of digital data we expect in the near future. Where, then, will our next-generation 5G network find the bandwidth to support our increasingly wireless world?

Researchers working on CRC's Breaking the Frequency Barrier (BFB) Grand Challenge are taking a pioneering approach to next-generation mobile broadband. Rather than focusing their research efforts on the radio frequency (RF) bands currently used for mobile communications, they are exploring the potential of harnessing much higher frequencies to carry our digital data.

A new way to network

Since these high-frequency waves have never been used for mobile broadband, the challenges are significant, but so are the potential pay-offs. These high-frequency bands have the bandwidth needed to handle the oncoming torrent of digital data, but equally as important, they are a blank canvas, a place where researchers can develop innovative technology and specifications for a next-generation 5G network that is:

  • Smart: Capable of sensing spectrum use, making decisions about how to send data most efficiently, then setting up the connections to do so.
  • Flexible: Where users' devices will "know" the location of fixed towers and be able to access them on the move either directly, or via other users' devices. The network can thus change configuration, decide what frequencies to use without human intervention, and make these decisions in a way that doesn't degrade service.

High frequency mobile test site

CRC scientists with the BFB project are studying high-frequency RF bands to get a clear understanding of how they can be harnessed for mobile broadband. Their work extends from examining how high-frequency waves interact with the physical environment, to developing the specialized systems needed to transmit and receive in these high frequencies, right through to setting up a test site in an indoor and an outdoor environment. Their goal is to develop the fundamental knowledge and technology needed by government and industry to exploit these high-frequency bands for mobile communications.

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