Ball State’s Office of Wireless Research and Mapping

By Hal Reid

It is always interesting to see how academic endeavors become research projects and eventually end up as products. However, it is rare to see an integrated effort to formally foster all three within one organization, as I found to be the case at Ball State University’s Office of Wireless Research and Mapping (OWRM).

Academics and students work in a highly focused environment that Dr. O’Neal Smitherman, the vice president of information technology, describes as a place for "exploring new technology into current culture." This exploration encompasses personal media, the use of short message service (SMS), animation, streaming video, Internet access and wireless communication technologies. The OWRM has received grants from organizations such as the Lilly Endowment ($20M) and the Department of Education ($850,000) to further its work.

A key question the OWRM is pursuing is “How do you prepare for what doesn’t yet exist?” For example, researchers wondered what might happen if home wireless bandwidth could improve to 30Mb per second. (Note that typical home service today has a maximum of about 3Mb per second.) They were actually able to achieve 50 Mb per second, which can provide for not just faster service and access to the Internet, but faster and better products, as well as a richer media experience for the end user.

This diagram shows a practical example of how the OWRM’s work is utilized in the field, in a project called the Digital Middletown Project (DMP). It shows how the University and a commercial wireless company provide connectivity using a combination of frequencies and paths (wireless and wired). (BreezeAccess is a product of Alvarion. The Tsunami QB products are from Proxim. The Xirrus access in and from the Public Library is from Xirrus.) (Click for larger image)

The entrepreneurial section of the OWRM operation is the only training center in the U.S. for a propagation mapping software, Cellular Experts. Cellular Experts’ software can ride on top of a GIS so that propagation patterns can be seen against actual geography. This also lets operators see the impedances to propagation, such as buildings, roads, bridges, etc. Beyond the visible impedance of a structure, the software can account for the building materials that comprise the structures and adjust the propagation pattern to reflect the nature of those materials. For example, brick may impact UHF signals differently than concrete or wood. The result is a more accurate projection of the propagation pattern.

Two examples of potential propagation patterns. The first shows Alvarion’s BreezeAccess 5.8Ghz – Haltemann Village’s Mitchell School District. Note the signal strength in the propagation area and the number of houses reached at each signal level. The pink dot is the point of wireless origin. The second graphic is a 3D representation of wireless coverage of the Mitchell School District. This is an example of propagation modeling laid over the geography. Use of this equipment resulted in greater coverage, although at a lower bandwidth. (Click for larger image)

Another benefit of this software is that greater accuracy of the propagation model means less time spent in field verification. This entrepreneurial arm of the OWRM has won several contracts to generate these models, to date worth close to $750,000.

The OWRM has accomplished an impressive "merger" of resources to look at the future of communication, and has also brought those resources to bear on the real world of wireless applications. In fact, Ball State will be recognized by CIO Magazine as a 2006 CIO 100 award recipient, for the DMP project and the OWRM.

Published Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

Written by Hal Reid

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