The Future With 5G

NYU WIRELESS and Its Director Theodore (Ted) Rappaport Are Looking into the Face of Tomorrow's Technology Today

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury said that the best science begins with romance: the idea that anything is possible. If that’s true, then Ted Rappaport, of the NYU School of Engineering Department of Electrical Engineering, is a true romantic of the Information Age. The founding director of the interdisciplinary re- search center NYU WIRELESS has been on the leading edge of his field for more than thirty years, and he sees possibilities on the horizon that few others can.

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Rappaport was mesmerized by broadcasts coming from his grand- father’s shortwave radio. “It was this big monstrosity mounted on a wall in his basement,” he says. “I listened to Morse code and ship-to-shore, and it was fascinating to me. That’s where my interest in wireless and engineering started.”

Rappaport still has his grandfather’s short-wave his wife had restored as a Valentine's Day gift a few years back, and from time to time he fires it up and listens to broadcasts from the United Kingdom, China, or Ecuador. He also spends his free time climbing the towers that he built outside their home in the mountains of southern Virginia and tinkering with his antennas there. (“My sanctuary,” he calls it.) But one gets the feeling that free time is in short sup- ply for Rappaport these days. Or perhaps it’s just that his work and play overlap sufficiently that the distinction is nearly moot.

At 53, Rappaport has founded some of the world’s biggest wireless research centers (including those at Virginia Tech and at the University of Texas in Austin) and launched and sold two companies. He has authored more than 20 books and holds around 100 patents. (His inventions have been built into modern mobile phones, used to catch cyber thieves and, he notes with clear delight, mentioned in the same breath as donuts on an episode of Law & Order.) Rappaport has served in an advisory or research capacity for the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and dozens of telecom companies. But when he talks about the future of his field, from fifth-generation (5G) wireless—widely predicted to launch in 2020—to the “in- formation shower” that he says will likely emerge, his tone is that of someone still in thrall to the possibilities.

“There are almost too many to mention,” says Rappaport. “All of the content we could ever consume in our lives will be downloaded to our portable devices as we move about. New peer-to-peer networks will emerge. I see wireless entering its renaissance as the explosion in bandwidth comes to the edge of each wireless network, allowing cell phones and computers to access data at speeds that are 1,000 or 10,000 times greater than today’s fastest WiFi networks.”

What will all of that mean for the aver- age person? For starters, if you’ve ever had to wait for Netflix to buffer in the middle of an episode of House of Cards, you may be pleased to learn that it will mean down- loading a full-length feature film to your cell phone in under a second. But forget the movies for a minute, and forget the panda cams at the National Zoo. Rappaport’s wireless renaissance will mean downloading your entire hard drive to your phone on the go. It will mean advances in traffic control and other safety systems. Wearable devices with AI capabilities for augmented and virtual reality. It will mean no more holding your breath during an MRI, because you’ll be able to see real-time imaging of your breathing lungs and beating heart—at a resolution that may leave you holding your breath anyway.

The opportunity to work “at the boundaries of wireless and medicine” in collaboration with NYU’s Langone Medical Center was a large part of what brought Rappaport to the School of Engineering two years ago. “There’s nowhere else in the world you will find what we have at NYU WIRELESS,” he says. “It’s remarkable. We have medical doctors, radiologists, surgeons, computer scientists, and electrical engineers all working together.” The projects coming out of this alliance range from research on advanced imaging capabilities to “wireless implants that allow brainwaves to be received across the room.”

(Yes, brainwaves. The mention of that grabs at the far corners of the imagination, at the sorts of scenarios that Bradbury speculated about in stories like “The Veldt,” about a smart house gone eerily awry. But the focus of the biomedical implants project is on patient-care applications, such as detecting and controlling seizures.)

In his two short years at NYU WIRELESS, Rappaport has turned this into his biggest wireless research center yet, garnering over $8 million in new external research funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 10 leading industrial affiliate companies, not counting the over $50 mil- lion of “in-force” funding at play when the research grants held by the participating faculty are counted.

Of course, the research at NYU WIRE- LESS spans multiple fields. Twenty faculty and more than 100 students are currently deep in research. Some are looking at ways to improve web traffic. Others are working on advancing communications technologies. Still others are developing the integrated circuits—tiny chips a universe away from that monster shortwave radio in his grandpa’s basement that were invented by former School of Engineering professor Eugene Kleiner—that will be required to intercept the millimeter wave frequencies of what Rappaport has dubbed “the massively broadband wireless future.”

That future, or the NYU WIRELESS re- search that will usher it into our lives, is being funded by governmental entities including the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and Empire State Development. “When you have talent, money is always the easy part. That’s what I’ve found in my career,” says Rappaport. Of course, it helps when your talent is deployed on the forefront of one of the hottest industries of our time. Last year, the number of internet-connected mobile devices was estimated to exceed the number of humans on the planet, and smart phones consumed more than 90% of global mobile data traffic; it’s no wonder that Samsung was the first corporation on board to fund NYU WIRELESS. The sponsors now number ten, with Straight Path, AT&T, Ericsson, Huawei Technologies, Intel Corporation, L3 Communications, National Instruments, Qualcomm Technologies, and Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) joining Samsung on the roster.

“Research is a contact sport; you have to be in contact with your constituency,” says Rappaport. “What we’re trying to do is bring the world’s leading companies in wireless, computation, and medicine in to see our students and faculty and support them and develop a relationship with us.” Industrial affiliates have a close working relationship with the center. They get early access to its research—and, frequently, to its job-seeking graduates. If research is a con- tact sport, it’s also a team sport, and Rappaport is not only a star player, but a seasoned professional at assembling winning teams with an eye on both the history and the future of the game. He’s enthusiastic about the infusion of new faculty and students drawn to the school by the work being done at NYU-WIRELESS, and he keeps tabs on the latest trends and gizmos, from maker culture to Rasberry Pi. But he also places a great value on the heritage of his research, much like he cherishes his antique short- wave radio. He relishes the fact that Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code and the telegraph, was an early professor at NYU. “That’s exactly the kind of student we want to create,” he says. “Creative, artistic, but also inventive: engineers.”