University of Waterloo’s new smart campus, along with Communitech’s open-innovation lab, gives researchers and businesses an eye-opening sneak peek into the transformative power of ultra-fast wireless connectivity.
How could daily life in Canada change when 5G connects all our devices, reducing signal response times to as little as one millisecond? How can new applications, services and businesses harness its potential? How will it power our city infrastructure, track business assets, and connect our communities?
These are just some of the questions fueling University of Waterloo’s smart campus. Created in 2020 as part of a three-year, multi-million dollar partnership with Rogers, the smart campus is a live test bed for advanced research into the design and operation of 5G networks, including the infrastructure and applications in a real-world Canadian environment.
Waterloo researchers have been using the early access to 5G and close collaboration with Rogers network experts to delve into the practical implications of the technology on a range of topics, engineering, network design, applied mathematics and artificial intelligence.
For example, Alexander Wong, an associate professor in Systems Design Engineering and Canada Research Chair in AI and Medical Imaging, researches how AI will improve with greater connectivity. “You will see more devices being smarter as a result of 5G,” says Wong. “So when waking up in the morning, imagine having your smart appliances, your smart voice assistants, all working around you to augment your daily life. 5G is crucial for AI at the [network] edge, because of the amount of information that needs to be transferred in a seamless, high-throughput manner. With Rogers’ support, it allows us to create a proper test bed, so when we deploy it for wider society use, we know it’s done in a proper manner.”
As part of the partnership, Rogers is a founding member of the Gateway for Enterprises to Discover Innovation at the University of Waterloo (GEDI), a central place for companies to access the university’s research, talent and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Rogers is also behind a new 5G open-innovation lab at Communitech, the Waterloo region’s public-private hub that supports companies growing in the digital economy. The lab’s mission is to advance made-in-Canada 5G technology and commercialize 5G use cases, including launching and accelerating launching smart city, IoT and enterprise 5G applications.
Researching the world in 5G
With 5G, wireless communications will undergo a paradigm shift—and in this context, for once, that’s not a clichéd buzz term. This type of connectivity ushers in radically new ways of thinking about networking, computing, and how they’re used in society. With this new era, comes new fundamental questions that University of Waterloo researchers are passionate about answering.
Consider, for instance, that 5G will deliver mobile broadband with peak data exchange rates of 1–20 Gbps, providing significantly faster speeds with greater capacity. For computer science, this alters some fundamental dynamics. “The catch with 5G is that it’s not a little bit faster—it’s dramatically faster. It’s an order of magnitude faster,” explains Samer Al-Kiswany, the founder of the Advanced Systems Lab at the University of Waterloo. “In computer science and technology, whenever you accelerate something by an order of magnitude, you disrupt the system design.”
He compares it to inventing a new mode of transportation that shrinks the usual 60-90-minute drive from Waterloo to Toronto down to just 5 minutes. The ramifications would impact nearly all aspects of how cities are planned and how our civilization is currently structured. “This is what 5G is doing to communication,” says Al-Kiswany. “It is going to be 10-times faster, making things that were impossible before, now possible.”
Al-Kiswany also points to 5G’s significant improvement in latency, reaching 1-10 ms (known as Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications, or URLLC). Suddenly, it’s conceivable to finely control a robot or machinery in real-time at a distance, or perform virtual surgery, with high-quality video streaming with analysis on top of it.
Smarter, safer infrastructure
Another primary area of research are 5G-enabled smart infrastructure applications. Sriram Narasimhan, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Waterloo, is focused on how to better understand the state of infrastructure using technology. “Through 5G, we are trying to bring very high resolution sensing devices into the field, so that we can do things there that we thought were only possible in a laboratory,” says Narasimhan.
His colleague Chul Min Yeun, assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, agrees that 5G will have important civil engineering applications. “5G enables 3D and augmented reality, to show a digital environment in a physical world,” he says.
Today, when engineering inspectors go out into the field and collect data, it’s not processed until days or weeks later, resulting in a long turnaround time to identify and remedy problems. With 5G, applications could track construction progress with an AI solution alerting engineers when there are inconsistencies to plans or insufficient structural support. “The aspect of real-time or immediate intelligence is so crucial,” says Narasimhan. “We need a lot of heavy computations to process information from data to knowledge, and 5G technologies let us bring that intelligence right to the place where we need it.”
Building a better 5G
Of course, managing an advanced communications network comes with its own learning curve, and University of Waterloo researchers also bring their expertise to collaborate directly with Rogers. Professor and Chair of Computer Sciences Raouf Boutaba is fascinated on the potential for autonomous network management, with networks capable of monitoring and analyzing network data without human intervention, which requires the network to process large amounts of data about its operations.
Similarly, Catherine Rosenberg, an Electrical and Computer Engineering and Canada Research Chair and Cisco Research Chair in 5G System, is working closely with Rogers on data-driven planning and operation of 5G networks. “5G is a very complex system,” says Rosenberg. “The 5G testbed on campus is critical to try different ideas and different technologies.”
Rosenberg and her student researchers have bi-weekly meetings with Rogers. “It's a very fruitful collaboration, not a typical one where you meet once every six months,” says Rosenberg. “People who work in companies have a lot of good ideas but they typically don't have the time to take their ideas and do something deep with them. That's why Rogers’ collaboration with the university has been great—the Rogers team can discuss with us their challenges and we can try to tackle them in a less pressured environment.”
Leading the revolution
As top academic researchers at University of Waterloo, a world-leading computer science and engineering school, professors like Boutaba, Al-Kiswany, Narasimhan and Rosenberg are no strangers to being courted by industry for their expertise. But the collaboration with Rogers on 5G stands out for its breadth and openness on a topic with such revolutionary implications for daily life in Canada.
“When you’re exploring unknown territory, you want the freedom and flexibility to exchange ideas, and to explore risky ideas,” says Al-Kiswany. “We’re lucky that Rogers is giving us the space to tackle these open-ended questions with an open mind.”
“5G is going to be critical to our society,” adds Rosenberg, “and we want Canada to remain a leader in this very important field.”