University of Kansas (KU) researchers will study how to improve the design of 5G connectivity and computing for rural areas — communities with unique network demands based around agricultural and community patterns of living and working – with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF)

The NSF-funded project will be headed by Taejoon Kim, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science and researcher at the Institute for Information Sciences at KU. Kim said a major hurdle in deploying 5G to rural communities has been “nonuniformity” in the spatial distribution of people as well as the demand for data on the network over time.

He said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that it usually comes down to revenue potential. From an economic viewpoint, investing in rural areas – which Kim and his fellow researchers referred to as “isolated islands” –  can be economically disadvantageous. 

“Connectivity is a very expensive problem,” Kim said. “Expensive in terms of maybe this operator is reluctant to invest there.”In a city, he said, the population is spread out in a way that is mostly uniform, but in rural areas you have a cluster of population here, another cluster there — that’s spatial nonuniformity. 

The agriculture industry also has needs for 5G. Automated machinery, like combines controlled by GPS, are performing high-level computations and require a lot of communication.

“A huge amount of data must go to the cell tower and then the core network,” Kim said in a statement.

“They’ll also want to collect all those data to get statistics,” he said. “But this heavy data use only happens during harvesting time. That’s temporal nonuniformity.”

In terms of education and employment opportunities with 5G, Kim and his colleague, Assistant Professor Morteza Hashemi, said a lack of fast access to information can create more of a digital divide between rural and urban. 

“It goes back and impacts a student’s homework, education, all of it,” Hashemi said in an interview with the Daily Yonder, later adding: “All of the technology has been designed mostly for urban areas, and that’s a reason that rural areas are kind of behind.”

With the grant, Kim and his colleagues are partnering with California-based commercial firm Blue Danube to run tests on a massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) platform. That’s an advanced antenna technology for wireless communications. Kim and his colleagues will use machine learning to understand how 5G can be better deployed to meet rural spatial and temporal demands.

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