Researcher aims to boost rural access to 5G, harden wireless network security and help conceive 6G

Lawrence – Look closely at the map of any carrier with nationwide 5G coverage and you’ll see that large parts of the country – rural areas – don’t have 5G service.

A new three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will support the work of a University of Kansas researcher to improve the design of 5G connectivity and computing for rural areas — communities with unique networking needs that grow agricultural and communal living and working patterns.

It is one of three new NSF-funded projects led by Taejoon Kim, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and researcher at KU’s Institute for Information Science (I2S).

Taejoon Kim“The 5G network system was developed by companies with a profit motive,” Kim said. “Because of this economic stimulus, all these 5G networks have been rolled out in urban areas, but people living in rural areas still have to pay for a subscription for their mobile phones, including for 5G service. But they haven’t benefited as much as people in urban areas — from the proliferation of information, the faster speeds, the ability to transfer large amounts of data, which are really changing our lives on another level.

“How can a company solve the problem in such a way that it can generate more sales?”

The KU researcher said a major hurdle in deploying 5G in rural communities has been “non-uniformity” in the spatial distribution of people, as well as demand for data on the network over time.

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“In a city, the population is mostly uniformly distributed, but in rural areas, there’s one population group there, another group there — that’s spatial heterogeneity,” Kim said.

Then there are agricultural needs. Automated machines, such as GPS-controlled combines, perform high-level calculations and require a lot of communication.

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

“You’re also going to want to collect all that data to get statistics,” he said. “But this heavy use of data only happens during the harvest season. That is temporal inconsistency.”

Kim and his team – KU EECS Assistant Professor Morteza Hashemi and collaborators from Purdue University – plan to streamline rural connectivity and computing design by working with California-based commercial firm Blue Danube to test on a Massive Multiple-Input Multiple -Output (MIMO) ) platform – 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 the spatial and temporal needs of rural areas.

“What is the key technological approach or hardware or software that will be different in a rural area than in an urban area?” Kim said. “Artificial intelligence can learn this complicated and inconsistent behavior.”

The group will explore the use of AI to learn uniform and non-uniform behaviors and look for approaches tailored to rural areas. Kim said one idea is to focus 5G signals more like a beam on specific communities and farms, rather than providing coverage in vast, mostly unpopulated regions to serve a town or two.

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“Because it’s non-uniform, if we direct the energy in a specific direction, it’s more efficient,” Kim said.

In addition to reimagining rural access to 5G, two other NSF awards to Kim will enable him to strengthen commercial 5G networks for use by the US government, military and infrastructure operators and advance sixth-generation (6G ) to develop.

Kim is the principal investigator for a one-year, $750,000 Phase 1 award from NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program to help the Department of Defense improve handsets and add 5G infrastructure and the US military, enabling government and infrastructure operators to work over public 5G networks while meeting security and resiliency requirements.

“The main motivation for this project is the pursuit of ‘zero trust’ principles (an approach to information technology design that requires verification of all devices in a network) to combat design weaknesses of 5G networks, which is why we integrate various security solutions will increase confidence in 5G,” Kim said.

A third NSF grant of three years and $285,000 supports Kim’s work in defining the requirements for 6G wireless communications, using artificial intelligence to design an advanced microwave spectrum wireless network architecture.

According to Kim, 5G can improve speed, connectivity and latency reduction by orders of magnitude. However, this improvement is not due to work on the millimeter wave, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has seen limited research in the United States. Rather, an increase in network throughput is due to the acquisition of new frequency bands and advances in Massive MIMO technologies.

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Instead of using today’s radio access network architecture, which is heavily dependent on cell towers, Kim will investigate how to efficiently use large-scale cell-free CFmMIMO (Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output) networks.

“We still need to see if we can use the neighborhood around 5 gigahertz – still microwave but with a different architectural network,” Kim said.

The current cellular network relies on all cell towers designed to serve the user within that cell.

“There is a new concept of ‘cell-free MIMO’ that removes all cell boundaries, but we would have a very powerful central entity controlling a large number of distributed base stations as access points,” Kim said.

He said this work would also include aspects of cybersecurity, strengthening the resilience of AI algorithms and architectures, and cloud radio access networks.

Photo: The work of a University of Kansas researcher will improve the design of 5G connectivity and computing for rural areas and communities with unique network requirements based on agricultural and community living and working patterns. Photo credit:

Photo: Taejoon Kim is the principal investigator for a one-year, $750,000 Phase 1 award from NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program to help the Department of Defense improve handsets and 5G infrastructure expansions and the US military , enabling government and infrastructure operators to operate over public 5G networks while still meeting security and resiliency requirements.

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