5G Testbed

Unlike previous generations of wireless technology, 5G promises to be about more than just smartphones. More than 30 percent of countries already had 5G availability by February 2021, according to VIAVI Solutions’ report, “The State of 5G.” And 5G’s availability is growing faster than that of its 4G LTE predecessor. Testing a 5G use case in a controlled environment, or 5G testbed, has been an important part of facilitating the massive 5G rollout.

Boasting connectivity, high bandwidth, and low latency, 5G benefits smartphone users. But researchers expect an unprecedented number of other types of devices to connect to a 5G network. This means 5G should be a network of connected machines, not just people.

Excitingly, 5G technology promises unparalleled connectivity for smart machines, augmented and virtual reality applications, and many other innovative uses. Thus, testing these experimental uses before their commercial rollout becomes an important aspect of innovation and entrepreneurship. Small-scale testing before a large rollout of a new use case identifies potential issues and facilitates innovation and entrepreneurship.

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Primer on 5G Testbed Workshops

Pilot studies generally evaluate feasibility, cost, and potential problems before scientists embark upon a full-scale project.

Definition of a 5G Testbed

Wireless technologies are no exception. Since the advent of early Wi-Fi network protocols in the mid-1990s, engineers have deployed burgeoning technologies in controlled environments, or testbeds.

Going beyond previous generations of wireless, 5G expands the range of radio frequencies, deploys cloud-based computing, and relies on decentralized computing. These new technologies underpin completely new applications and services.

For example, 5G specifically supports automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) in industrial contexts. That’s because its wide throughput allows the connection of many devices at once.

Engineers test machine-to-machine 5G communication in a 5G testbed environment before a commercial rollout. This allows them to get a sense for how the network is performing in a reasonable approximation of real-world applications.

US Government Investment

Prior to commercial deployment, 5G testbeds within university settings provide workshops to test and track new uses, and universities may receive government funding.

For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) collaborated with an industry consortium of 28 networking companies and associations. The public-private partnership invested $100 million over seven years to build a set of 5G testbeds in New York and Salt Lake City, Utah. These platforms for advanced wireless research test data-intensive applications in robotics, virtual reality, and traffic safety.

In particular, researchers at Rutgers University, Columbia University, and New York University led a collaboration to test a new generation of technologies. This testbed covered one square mile in West Harlem. The platform, called COSMOS, received a $22.5 million NSF grant to experiment with the low latency, ultrahigh bandwidth, and edge computing that 5G offers.

COSMOS plans to test a range of applications, including cloud-assisted connected vehicles and augmented reality and virtual reality for mobile users. Furthermore, a main goal of COSMOS is to create a cloud-based innovative learning platform for students.

Innovation via 5G Testbeds in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the government announced the 5G Testbeds and Trials Program in 2017, leading to the creation of a national 5G innovation network. The government intended its investment—equivalent to about 1.02 billion US dollars—to stimulate market development and deployment of 5G technology and infrastructure for 5G projects in the United Kingdom.

The government announced six primary testbeds that would receive the first round of funding:

  • 5G RuralFirst—tested spectrum sharing and other networking technologies in hard-to-reach remote areas
  • 5G Smart Tourism—demonstrated virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to enhance visitor experiences at museums and festivals
  • Worcestershire 5G Consortium—used robotics, augmented reality, and data analytics to optimize manufacturing
  • Liverpool 5G Testbed—deployed 5G technology to elderly people living independently to address loneliness and improve communication with hospitals
  • AutoAir—explored 5G technology in autonomous vehicles as well as air and rail transportation
  • 5G Rural Integrated Testbed—connected residents in rural communities and tested drones and machine learning to optimize farming

These fully functional cellular technology facilities help bring solutions out of R&D into early real-world deployment. Companies can thus showcase new applications to grow market opportunities. 

Collaboration with Industry

In another example, a collaboration among industry partners and government to improve communication in mines relied on 5G testbed workshops before rollout. The European Union’s Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems worked with the Swedish telecommunications company Telia to develop, test, and demonstrate the use of 5G technology in a mining environment.

Together with the telecommunications company Ericsson, Telia built a 5G network for the Swedish mining company Boliden AB in the Kankberg mine. The network, which uses robotics and automation to improve productivity and safety, is the world’s first underground network based on 5G new radio technology.

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Available 5G Testbeds Around the World

Countries that have deployed 5G for mobile cell phone users continue to test its application for other use cases. Health, logistics, education, retail, manufacturing, and numerous other industries benefit from robust 5G rollout and emphasis on testing real-use scenarios.

Top Countries for 5G

In December 2020, India launched its first 5G testbed for autonomous navigation systems. The government sanctioned a testbed at the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad, which allocated two acres for industries, R&D labs, and academic researchers.

The testbed includes rain simulators and other smart technologies as part of testing autonomous vehicles and other 5G-connected navigation systems. The ultimate goals of the program involve finding applications in aerial and terrestrial transportation, agriculture, and surveillance and other industrial uses.

As a region, Asia leads the world in 5G networks, with the region of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) second. According to the report from VIAVI Solutions, China leads the world with 341 cities with 5G.

The United States leads the American region in terms of 5G deployment. The number of US cities with 5G networks has increased by five times over the past year to 279.

South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Spain round out the top five countries in terms of 5G network availability. More countries are adding 5G deployments, and the past year has seen a 350 percent increase in new cities with deployments.

Spectrum Allocation

As a wider spectrum becomes available for use, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built a testbed focused on testing measurements surrounding 5G communications. The project aims to optimize the technology that forms the basis for mobile phones, IoT, smart manufacturing, autonomous vehicles, and virtual reality.

The NIST’s 5G Spectrum Sharing Test Bed measures how frequencies can operate without interfering with each other.

And the NIST’s NextG Channel Model Alliance features more than 175 participants from academia, government, and industry globally. It has made its resources publicly available, including data sets and complex models for 5G communications scenarios, ranging from offices to shopping malls to outdoor areas.

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Tools and Resources for 5G Testbeds

In a recent brainstorming workshop, the International Telecommunication Union, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, and IEEE called for increased collaboration between academia and industry in trying out 5G use cases. In particular, the workshop dealt with including testbeds for vertical applications. A vertical application is unique to a particular function, meeting the customized needs of an organization or industry.

Virtual Testbeds

In 2023, IEEE released its 5G/6G Innovation Testbed, which can operate over the cloud without requirement for physical hardware. IEEE recognized a need to fill in the space of collaborative innovation for 5G and 6G networks and to facilitate the transition of ideas into real technologies that could help better human connectivity. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown inspired IEEE volunteers to conveive of a cloud-based 5G testbed that would allow the industry and research communities to continue to collaborate and innovate without being bound by geography, proprietary technologies, or testing scope. 

The IEEE 5G/6G Innovation Testbed can also connect to the physical hardware of its users or to other testing facilities. This hub-and-spoke model where the iEEE testbed serves as a digital hub to other facilities allows for the potential of Federated testbeds that connect via a standard API.

Federated Model of the 5G Testbed

Currently, most testbeds operate using an isolated facility model. This means a single entity—corporate or academic—owns and operates its own testbed.

Many testbeds center on research. So rather than providing a testing ground for technology, the testbeds exist for research purposes only. Similarly, in some cases, organizations build testbeds to use internally, restricting the facility to organizational use.

With the increasing complexity of technology, testing use cases often need components outside the particular testbed, requiring a framework of collaboration. Thus, a new model of 5G testbed is emerging: the federated testbed.

A federated testbed is a system that allows each individual testbed to maintain its own autonomy while working with others to share technological resources. The challenge is to design a system that respects the intellectual property and autonomy of each site while balancing the need to share technologies to optimize technologies.

Support for 5G Testbed Implementation

Much support for the implementation of 5G testbeds derives from partnerships between academia and industry.

For example, Verizon established a 5G ultrawideband network at a testbed within the University of Michigan. The Mcity test facility sits on 32 acres within the campus research complex and features 16 acres of roads and other traffic infrastructure.

Testing focuses on autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation. Using cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology, Mcity vehicles communicate with other cars, traffic lights, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles. Furthermore, Mcity features groundbreaking testing systems, such as augmented reality technology that allows virtual 5G-connected vehicles to interact with physical test vehicles in real time.

Similarly, Sprint has opened a testbed in its Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. The project is a collaboration among a number of technology partners and researchers at Georgia Tech, working together to develop a smart city within a 500-acre technology park. The city’s entire infrastructure relies on smart technologies.

The emerging technologies include an autonomous passenger shuttle for the 7,500 people who work at the facility and smart light poles and traffic signals. In addition, autonomous drones deliver mail and autonomous lawnmowers take care of the lawns.

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Requirements and Recommendations for Setting Up a 5G Testbed

Perhaps the biggest challenge that companies face in setting up a 5G testbed is obtaining permission to use available radio frequency bands. They need to acquire this permission from the governmental agency responsible for assigning 5G frequencies. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission assigns and coordinates frequencies.

Permissions to Set Up a 5G Testbed

Most telecommunications carriers already have purchased the rights to use available frequencies for their mobile users. That’s why collaboration among industry, academia, and government entities is so important for setting up 5G testbeds. Without carriers, academic researchers lack access to the radio spectrum. Conversely, telecommunications companies that own frequencies need academia so that they can benefit from its researchers’ discoveries.

A 5G testbed could use an unlicensed or lightly licensed band, such as Citizens Broadband Radio Service. But engineers still would need to worry about interfering with licensed users of a particular frequency.

Thus, collaboration with carriers, who already own and license commercial bands, provides an efficient solution.

Expertise for a 5G Testbed

The process for setting up a 5G testbed mirrors that of any researcher trying to win a government research grant. What question is the researcher trying to answer? How will the 5G testbed help test that question? And where is the best source of funding?

Locating an existing 5G testbed will help researchers take advantage of existing spectrum allocations. Alternatively, researchers must seek their own permissions or collaborations with existing owners of radio frequencies.

Since the early days of Wi-Fi, various members of academia have spent their entire careers building testbeds. And 5G provides the next generation of technology to test. It’s critical for the testbed project manager to stay current with the rapid new deployments of 5G use cases and to publish testing results early and meaningfully.

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Current Resources on Best Practices for 5G Testbeds

Certainly, 5G technologies are moving fast. It’s vital for stakeholders to access all possible research and keep track of journals and conferences that are reporting 5G testbed results. Use IEEE Future Networks to join a global 5G initiative that connects researchers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers to engage on 5G.

Interested in learning more about technology roadmaps? IEEE Roadmaps provides guidance and structure to support technical roadmap development and activities. Joining this initiative will provide you the opportunity to discuss common challenges and objectives while continuing progress towards your roadmap goals. Connect with other industry, academia, and governmental experts providing this critical resource for the advancement of technology.