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Northeastern wireless project gets federal designation as ‘innovation zone’

Supercomputer will help perfect 5G and create 6G with artificial-intelligence apps

Professor Tommaso Melodia, founding director of Northeastern's Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, poses for a portrait at the “Colosseum” facility in Burlington in July 2021.
Professor Tommaso Melodia, founding director of Northeastern's Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, poses for a portrait at the “Colosseum” facility in Burlington in July 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The future of wireless networks is humming loudly in an air-conditioned room in Burlington just off Route 128.

It’s a supercomputer on Northeastern University’s suburban campus known as Colosseum. The multimillion-dollar machine is capable of testing all kinds of mobile technologies, from cellular to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and beyond. The goal is to develop artificial-intelligence software to enhance the capabilities of wireless communications, cut down on congestion, and improve security. Colosseum is already helping improve the fifth generation of wireless tech, dubbed 5G, and will be a key player in creating 6G, too.

On Thursday, by a 4-0 vote, the Federal Communications Commission designated Colosseum, the world’s largest wireless network emulator, as a “federal innovation zone.”

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The vote immediately vaults Northeastern into a national leadership role in wireless research, one of only four such zones in the country. The others are in Raleigh, N.C., New York City, and Salt Lake City.

“This is a big deal,” FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said at Thursday’s meeting to approve the zone. “History tells us when you give innovators in the United States sandboxes to test new ideas, good things follow.”

Today’s wireless networks frequently get congested at busy times of day, causing dropped calls, lost downloads, and app blackouts. The big three carriers, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, are spending tens of billions of dollars to expand their networks and add more capable 5G technology but still can’t always keep up. Research on Colosseum is intended to offer new solutions, including teaching AI programs how to manage networks.

“Networks of the future that will be based on AI will be able to automatically adapt their behavior, automatically reconfigure themselves, and be more resilient than the networks that we have today,” said Northeastern professor Tommaso Melodia, who heads the school’s Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things and gave the Globe a tour of the Burlington facility.

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For example, when wireless carriers know of a big gathering like a Fourth of July concert or sporting event, they may install temporary cellular equipment to handle the expected crush of calls, texts, and Instagram posts from the crowd. In the future, AI management software could better juggle available airwaves and network gear to handle congestion without added equipment.

On a tour of Colosseum, two long racks of computers include special processing units from Nvidia that can calculate hundreds of teraflops, or trillion floating-point operations per second, for AI operations. The setup also has radio transmitters capable of emulating 256 wireless phones or other devices simultaneously. Multicolored cables draped from the ceiling transport data between the racks while at each end of the room massive water pipes feed the cooling system.

As the computer creates different conditions and challenges for the radio signals, the system generates more data per second than is contained in the Library of Congress, Melodia said. All of that data can, in turn, be used to teach AI systems how to manage a network better.

The computer is housed in a new 100,000-square-foot research facility that Northeastern has just completed at its Burlington “innovation campus,” which also houses a field covered by a five-story high mesh netting for testing autonomous drones. The facility is so new that painters were still at work in the hallways, and many rooms don’t have furniture yet.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spent about $20 million in 2017 to build Colosseum to help judge entrants in a contest to design new wireless frequency-sharing technologies. The supercomputer was originally stashed at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and moved to Burlington two years ago. Northeastern got another $6 million from the National Science Foundation to make improvements to the computer.

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One improvement will be to allow Colosseum’s radios to use higher-frequency bands. Colosseum originally operated at 6 GHz and below. Standard cellphones used spectrum bands like 800 MHz and 1900 MHz, but some 5G networks are using much higher frequencies such as 25 GHz. And 6G could extend to 100 GHz or more. The higher-frequency bands can carry more data, though they don’t travel as far. Each MHz refers to a radio wave that cycles one million times per second, while a GHz wave cycles one billion times.

“We’re trying to extend Colosseum to work on some of these higher-frequency bands that are going to be key for future wireless communications,” Melodia said. “And Colosseum, we think, will play a very important role in creating these intelligent networks of the future.”


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.