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MIT center aims to improve wireless technology

Because it’s is expanding so quickly, wireless activity is rapidly absorbing the radio spectrum licensed by carriers.

Associated Press/file

Because it’s is expanding so quickly, wireless activity is rapidly absorbing the radio spectrum licensed by carriers.

The billions of phones, tablets, and other gadgets that connect to cellular data networks aren’t as sophisticated as they look. They’re actually quite primitive, with electronics that consume too much power, software that’s vulnerable to infiltration, and radios that waste valuable bandwidth.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is aiming to change that with the launch Thursday of a new research program. The MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing will bring together scientists and engineers from academia and the private sector to create the next generation of mobile devices, with tougher data security, longer battery life, and faster data download speeds.

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“The unique thing about the center is it allows you to think about wireless systems holistically,” said Dina Katabi, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and codirector of the center.

A key approach by the center will be to bring together people who work on disparate aspects of mobile technology — operating systems, apps, security, radios, batteries, processor chips — to develop common solutions.

“You can’t really solve these problems by looking at individual isolated components,” Katabi said.

MIT faculty and students will team up at the center with a host of computing and telecom giants, including Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., Amazon.com, and the Spanish phone company Telefonica.

The wireless industry’s biggest challenge is the sheer popularity of its products. Hari Balakrishnan, a computer science professor who is codirector of the center, said 1.7 million new smartphones were activated worldwide each day during the second quarter of 2012.

But, “it’s not just about smartphones. It’s about lots of embedded devices, in our cars, in our medical devices, in factory equipment, in things you have in your house,” Balakrishnan said.

Those include millions of e-book readers and automotive security services like OnStar, which transmit and receive data over cellular networks.

All this wireless activity is rapidly absorbing the limited radio spectrum licensed by wireless carriers. The Obama administration has repeatedly warned of an impending “spectrum crunch” that could stifle the growth of wireless services because there won’t be enough capacity to handle demand.

While Balakrishnan and Katabi support federal efforts to free up more spectrum, they believe it’s more important for mobile device manufacturers to do better with the radio frequencies they already have.

“It’s not the scarcity of the spectrum that is limiting us,” said Katabi. “It’s the scarcity of the innovation.”

For example, the center is developing new antenna technologies that could transmit 10-times more data over a given radio frequency than today’s devices. The technology is ready to go; the big problem, said Katabi, is that upgrading the antennas won’t be enough. The changeover would also require a massive upgrade of entire cellular networks. So the center plans to develop a cellular network that will be easier to upgrade.

Victor Bahl, manager of the mobility and networking research group at Microsoft Corp., noted that the projected growth of mobile devices is so explosive the networks won’t be able to keep up. By 2016, there will be 10 billion mobile devices moving more than 10 billion gigabytes of data each month, compared with 7 billion devices today moving just 1.3 billion gigabytes per month.

“It is very clear that we’re heading toward a spectrum crisis if we do nothing,” said Bahl, who believes the MIT initiative can help facilitate a solution for the wireless industry. “This is not a problem that one company can solve,” said Bahl. “We have to move collectively.”

Data security will be another major research priority. Many wireless devices can be hacked and disrupted by skilled software engineers. For example, Katabi and some of her students figured out a way to hack into a wireless defibrillator, which is used by people with heart disease.

The center’s researchers will study ways to build better security into wireless devices at every level, including software and hardware.

Power issues are another target. But Balakrishnan said that boosting battery life isn’t enough to solve the problem. The center will also study ways to make mobile device software and hardware more energy-efficient.

“It’s really the system’s job to make sure that whatever the apps are doing, your system doesn’t die,” he said.

Balakrishnan hopes the center’s alliance of academic and commercial skills will pay off in about five years with more secure, energy-efficient devices that make better use of the radio spectrum. But to get there, he said, “we all have to pull together in the same direction, and that’s what the center is largely about.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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