Uros Marjanovic, Lead Network Engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is pictured with Laura Frerichs, Executive Director of the school’s Research Park.

May 03 2021

5G on the Higher Ed Horizon

Higher education facilities such as the 5G Innovation Hub at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will be critical in advancing the emerging connectivity standard.

More than a decade after the first appearance of 4G LTE, its effect on users’ lives can be difficult to recall. Before 2009, however, it was almost unheard of for people to use their mobile phones to upload photos, watch videos, follow GPS directions or download audiobooks — activities that people take for granted today.

Now, with carriers rolling out 5G networks, the world is poised for another tectonic shift in connectivity. But first, industry and academia must invent and validate transformative applications that take advantage of the new standard. This innovation will take place in facilities such as the 5G Innovation Hub at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, opened last fall in the university’s Research Park.

Uros Marjanovic, lead network engineer at the university, helped stand up the Innovation Hub. He notes that 5G is “constantly changing and evolving” and says that efforts like the Innovation Hub will be instrumental in helping to develop realistic, high-value use cases for the technology. “We’ve talked about 5G a lot, but it’s really a technology that is still in its infancy,” Marjanovic says. “We have these amazing minds on campus, and if we just give them some tools, then they will do things with 5G that people could never fathom.”

Infancy or not, 5G is quickly moving toward the mainstream. 5G cellular networks are expanding across the U.S., and IT manufacturers are increasingly adding 5G-inclusive solutions and services to their portfolios: Cisco and its 5G-compatible network architecture offerings, for example, and Palo Alto Networks, which recently released a 5G-native security solution.

The result of a partnership with Verizon, the Innovation Hub is bringing together small startups, large companies and university researchers and students to collaborate on new use cases for 5G, says Laura Frerichs, executive director of the Research Park. “My hope is that both our companies and our researchers are able to invent ahead of others what’s possible with 5G,” she says. “Rather than talk about the technology in terms of hypotheticals, they will be able to try it out and learn from each other.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how 5G will advance educational technology on campus.

Building a 5G Sandbox for Higher Ed

The university’s Research Park is home to offices for John Deere, Capital One, Procter & Gamble and more. Verizon has been a tenant for years, so when the company was looking to set up innovation centers at universities, Champaign was an obvious fit. “We were thrilled to be the first incubator,” Frerichs says. “We’re at the early stages of this technology, which is why it’s important to have this test bed available.”

The hub, Frerichs says, should provide researchers with the robust 5G bandwidth needed for proof-of-concept projects. Its 5G ultra-wideband connectivity is more resilient and robust than the 5G midband and low band typically available to consumers.

“It’s a closed lab, basically a sandbox,” notes Marjanovic. “It’s not designed to serve thousands of folks, but rather just a few devices at a time. It’s intended for testing development of new technologies, whether that’s a new radio or using an existing radio for a new application to see how it performs.”

innovation hub

The innovation hub. Photography Credit: Photography by University of Illinois Research Park

Other universities are also capitalizing on the potential of 5G. Students at the University of Missouri, for instance, recently received full 5G capabilities on campus, along with a new 5G research and teaching space, as part of a collaboration with AT&T.

Leo Gergs, a 5G markets research ­analyst at ABI Research, says higher ­education will be an important sector both as an innovator and as a consumer of 5G applications. “The immediate use case for 5G in higher education centers on the provision of connectivity for remote education purposes, to provide an alternative to Wi-Fi,” Gergs says. “In the long term, 5G capabilities can be used to further enhance higher education, using additional technologies such as augmented and virtual reality. For example, virtual reality can be used to allow medical students to train and perform different tasks in a virtual environment.”

While 4G has a wide array of consumer-focused applications, 5G is likely to prove most valuable in business and research contexts, says Jason Leigh, research manager for mobility and 5G at IDC. “It’s going to be faster than 4G LTE in most areas,” he says. “Where you hear the most excitement is when 5G is paired with other technologies, like AR or robotics or drone control. I always hear about the scenario of a surgeon in New York doing robotic surgery in San Diego. Will 5G get to the point where it powers those futuristic use cases? Yes. It’s just not there today.”

Developing Transformational Use Cases in Higher Ed

Frerichs says the Innovation Hub will focus on four types of use cases: industrial applications, startup technologies, classroom functions and support for groundbreaking research. For instance, 5G could support AR and VR applications to enhance classroom instruction. “The big problem is that you need really robust bandwidth to offer that,” she says. “5G is one way you’re able to make that technology viable.”

Another space where 5G could be transformative is agriculture. University researchers are working to advance robotics in farming for tasks such as precision application of fertilizer, soil sampling and detection of invasive species. However, Frerichs notes, these applications are limited by a lack of wireless connectivity in rural areas. “You need communication,” Frerichs says. “5G is seen as a way to leapfrog and make Internet of Things devices more feasible instead of waiting for fiber connections.”

DIVE DEEPER: 5G is the future of the Internet of Things.

“5G promises to provide really high bandwidth and low latency,” says Girish Chowdhary, a University of Illinois associate professor of computer science and agricultural and biological engineering. “With 5G, we can offload the compute tasks to an edge device or to the cloud. That makes the individual robots much less expensive. The agriculture industry is very sensitive to cost, so this will drive technologies that are more adoptable.”

The Innovation Hub, Chowdhary says, gives researchers a change to validate technologies in a lab before testing them in the field. “If we were to put together a 5G testing environment ourselves, it would be ad hoc,” he says. “The Innovation Hub puts us years ahead.”

Photography Credit: Photography by Matthew Gilson (portrait), University of Illinois Research Park (hub images)