Ph.D. candidates Hanif Rahbari, left, and Wessam Afifi are hard at work in their lab at the UA department of electrical and computer engineering.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

A new research center at the University of Arizona is leading a nationwide effort to develop next-generation wireless technologies.

The UA’s Broadband Wireless Access and Applications Center received funding to support research on next-gen wireless broadband, boosting speed and bandwidth while enabling technologies like wearable computing devices.

In August, the National Science Foundation awarded the UA center a continuing grant of $1.6 million over five years. The UA leads the multi-university center, with partners Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Auburn University and the University of Notre Dame.

The new grants will be combined with $4 million in support from industry, said Tamal Bose, head of the UA department of electrical and computer engineering and director of the UA wireless center.

The center’s research is focused on securing data, improving wireless speed and providing universal connectivity, Bose said.

“We can provide a better wireless service to the customers and also provide universal connectivity including rural areas, where connectivity is very limited,” said Bose, who came to the UA about a year ago after serving as director of the Wireless Internet Center for Advanced Technology at Virginia Tech.

Bose is working on this research with the wireless center’s co-director, professor Marwan Krunz, and project manager and research assistant professor, Haris Volos.

Bose said next-generation broadband wireless technology will give consumers the ability to control every possible device in a home from a watch or other wearable tool, while in health care, the tangle of bedside wires in hospitals could disappear as patient data is managed wirelessly.

“That will enable the health-care industry to go way beyond where it is right now in terms of technology, and its data management and processing,” Bose said.

Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based telecommunications industry analyst, said next-generation wireless broadband research such as the NSF-funded projects is needed to create a new “5G” wireless network that will play a vital role in everyday lives via smartphones.

“It’s the remote control for our life,” Kagan said. “That’s why you go from 4G to 5G.”

While today, smartphones fill that need to some extent, wearable devices that can control other objects are on the horizon, he said.

“That’s exactly what’s going to happen,” Kagan said. “Bit by bit, it’s all being transformed.”

However, Bose said, there is no more room for wireless waves to travel. The usable spectrum is licensed out and used up, creating a problem Bose likens to a city with too many cars and too few roadways.

“What is happening in the wireless world is the demand for data is doubling every year. … That’s like saying we want to double the traffic in Tucson every year. How are we going to do that?” Bose said.

But there are solutions, said.

First, there is the option of packing more digital information into the bits of data that travel via electromagnetic waves — like making cars smaller and lanes narrower, Bose said.

Second, it’s possible to make the speed of the traveling data faster, like raising the speed limits in the city.

Third, there is the idea of sharing the spectrum, like utilizing and sharing roads that aren’t often used.

Bose said there is no end to the research, but the researchers hope to develop new algorithms — essentially electronic instructions that automate calculations and processes — and other technologies over the next five to 10 years to keep up with the rate of data demand.

Demand for wireless networks and applications is already huge. According to CTIA-The Wireless Association, there were about 326 million U.S. wireless subscriber connections in December, including devices such as smartphones and tablets and wireless connection points.

The UA research center comprises four labs, studying wireless electromagnetics, signal processing, wireless networking and so-called cognitive radio, which involves the way devices find the best available wireless channels.

In the labs, mostly graduate students and a few undergraduates have the opportunity to get in on the latest wave of wireless innovation.

“It provides more educational opportunities for our students, and it provides jobs for the local community,” Bose said.

“We have a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in this country, so anything new and novel and efficient goes into the market very quickly.”

To get the research from the labs to the marketplace, the industry will pick up technologies developed by the UA center, and its partners will use them to develop new products and services, much like 3G and 4G networks enabled new generations of products.

Industry members supporting the UA’s wireless research are a diverse group, including defense giant Raytheon Co.; electronic test equipment maker Agilent Technologies; space electronics maker Space Micro; and locally, Tucson-based signal-processor maker Rincon Research and Hydronalix, a developer of unmanned watercraft based in Sahuarita.

“This partnership and collaboration is to develop next generation technologies... and to help develop next generation engineers,” said Bill Wallace, director of university development for Agilent’s electronics measurement group.

Bose said that as demand for wireless communications grow, research will only grow with it.

“Wireless is already pervasive. It’s only going to get more common.”

Ashley Powell is a NASA Space Grant intern at the UA and the Star. Contact her at or 573-4674.