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Sensors, big data fuel Canadian research on spectrum visibility

CRC studies spectrum using sensor network and big data analytics

A unique approach to spectrum monitoring and information about the RF environment is being taken by the Communications Research Centre Canada in Ottawa. CRC has developed a prototype system for advanced spectrum monitoring that relies on, among other things, a sensor network and big data visualization to create comprehensive insights about the spectrum environment so that spectrum managers can make queries about the RF environment and get answers in near real-time.

Mathieu Gemme is a telecommunications analyst with the government of Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, of which the CRC is part. During a presentation at last year’s International Symposium for Advanced Radio Technologies, Gemme described the existing monitoring network that is being leveraged by the CRC, including fixed sites mounted on towers with equipment in shelters at the base that includes spectrum analyzers and computers. Those sites are mainly in urban areas and are primarily used for interference investigations and compliance, he said. In addition, there are 50 mobile monitoring vehicles (including some installed in taxi cabs that monitor the spectrum environment as the cab drivers navigate around the city), eight monitoring trailers and two specialty vehicles. The trailers, Gemme noted, are sometimes preferred to other vehicles because they can be left at locations to do monitoring over longer stretches of time. CRC’s current network includes more than 100 sensors, some of which are from legacy systems. CRC is also using a crowdsourcing application installed on some government users’ BlackBerry devices to supplement the sensor network information.

The ability to do extensive monitoring is important to regulators for a number of reasons. In addition to making sure that spectrum policy is being complied with and tracking down sources of interference such as GPS jammers and nonconforming sources of radio frequencies, good spectrum-monitoring data can inform licensing decisions and give regulators insight into whether and how occupied a particular band is, whether bands might be good candidates for re-farming, and how successful an agency’s spectrum policies are.

“We built the system for the purpose of showing our government and perhaps other organizations what is possible and what works – a demonstration that is significant enough to show that the system is live and real,” said Stéphane Gagnon, vice president of applications and performance for the CRC.

He said that the system can detect where spectrum is being utilized, but at this point cannot tell exactly how busy a band is. “We know it’s in use, and we’re still working on developing the capability to really measure how heavily used each band is. We know the band is active; we’re still working on how active is it really, like it is 90% used or 15% used.”

It does this by looking at control channel communications – and the system doesn’t have the ability to look at any personal data traffic that the network is carrying, Gagnon noted. CRC is also doing sensing and sweeping in spectrum that is not expected to be occupied, to see what activity exists outside of expected active bands. To date, the demo has focused on monitoring spectrum in the range from land mobile radio bands up to around 6 GHz, he said, including Wi-Fi at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. CRC plans to continue this and expand to millimeter wave bands in the future.

“We recognize in Canada that going forward, more and more the country relies on wireless technologies,” Gagnon said. “So to effectively manage the spectrum resources, going forward there needs to be a paradigm shift around how you allocate it and assure compliance. If your team is asked to assure compliance for more and more different bands going forward, they don’t necessarily get more staff to do the work. More has to be automated, and basically, our system is a start of how that could look.”

In May, the CRC officially opened its Big Data Analytics Centre for analyzing the spectrum-related data collected by its prototype system. The BDAC includes a massive, seven-meter by three-meter curved screen for data visualization.

In remarks during the opening of the big data centre, Navdeep Bains, minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said that “the new digital economy is about analyzing flows of often unstructured data, including data on how we use wireless spectrum. We now have the power to collect and analyze large amounts of data that will help us manage this valuable resource better. At this lab, our researchers use data to understand, in real time, where there are unused radio waves that could be put to work—and also where the supply is so tight that it creates a bottleneck. …

“Let me paint you a picture of what’s possible when data analytics meets wireless communications,” Bains added. “Imagine a world where telecom providers can use bands of spectrum on demand, as it’s needed—a modern and more efficient way of managing spectrum.”

In terms of visualization, CRC wants to make spectrum analysis an immersive experience, Gagnon said – particularly as it looks ahead to the needs of 5G wireless systems.

“Going forward, with 5G and millimeter wave, visualizing spectrum is no longer a two-dimensional problem,” Gagnon said. “It is going to be more and more of a 3D problem, because with millimeter wave, one could re-use the same frequency at different altitudes, because you have to focus the beam so much.”

This would enable, for example, the same frequency to be re-used at street level, and on the 5th floor of a building – and perhaps on the 10th and 25th floors as well, without the sites interfering with each other, he added.

CRC’s research is driven by three “grand challenge” initiatives, one of which looks at fundamental characteristics of spectrum above 6 GHz in various environments, indoors and outdoors and outside-in penetration.

“That’s where we start thinking about, how do we use the spectrum we have in a better way? To look at how to better use the spectrum, you have to monitor it in the first place,” Gagnon said. “All of these are for proof of concept, and showing what is possible and what works to explain to the regulators here how things could potentially be used in the future to do sustainable spectrum management. Going forward, continuing to allocate spectrum with long-term, licenses might not be the best way to open up new bands in the future. If some new bands in the future could use some kind of dynamicity and flexibility, that might be a better way to manage this natural resource that is the spectrum.”

Want to know more about spectrum monitoring and visibility? Join us this week for an RCR Wireless News webinar on the topic!

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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