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Science Everywhere: Optimizing the RF Spectrum

Wireless devices use the radio frequency (RF) spectrum to transmit data. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocates the space to private companies, doling out slices like so many pieces of pie.

But the wireless industry's appetite for pie is insatiable, and the best pieces are starting to run out. Global mobile data traffic grew 69 percent in 2014, according to Cisco. What can be done?

Share the pie better, improve technology, and/or start making use of some of the less desirable pieces of the pie, say IIT researchers.

"The RF spectrum is heavily utilized, but there are places in the spectrum that are less so. We are working to better understand RF spectrum utilization, identify possible alternatives, and increase spectrum utilization and efficiency," said Dennis Roberson, vice provost and research professor in computer science.

A former executive with Motorola, Roberson also chairs the FCC's Technological Advisory Council (TAC), which provides technical advice to the FCC, and serves on the U.S. Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee. He also was an Invited Expert on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group on Spectrum Policy.

With Cynthia Hood, associate professor of computer science and engineering, he co-founded the IIT Wireless Network Communications Research Center (WiNCom) in 2007. The center does research in RF spectrum measurements, RF measurement data storage and analysis techniques; cognitive radio; RF coexistence; wireless network modeling; and RF interference modeling and mitigation.

From the roof of and offices in the IIT Tower at 35th and State, interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students collect and analyze data about spectrum utilization in Chicago. Their operation includes more data storage than the rest of the campus combined, 200 terabytes.

Since May 2014, Asbel Assefa (CS ’15) has been working on a National Science Foundation (NSF) project for WiNCom exploring the potential uses of spectrum that are currently reserved for plane radar. A band of spectrum used around airports for landing planes is not needed where there are no airports, and so could be re-allocated to wireless use.

"I like the creative aspects of computer science," said Assefa, "making things happen by writing code." Participating in the WiNCom project helped her apply what she learned in the classroom as an undergraduate to a project with national implications—finding better ways to share the spectrum pie for an industry that’s constantly hungry for more.