DARPA project to examine terahertz for wireless communications

spectrum
Researchers are studying spectrum bands that are higher than millimeter wave to see how they might be useful for wireless communications. (Pixabay)

It may be too early for the wireless industry to make major investments in spectrum above 95 GHz, but it is the right time for researchers to take a closer look at the spectrum and see where it might lead.

ComSenTer is a newly formed hub for advanced wireless and sensing research founded by a consortium of industrial partners and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). ComSenTer researchers are developing technologies for the high gigahertz and terahertz spectrum that present opportunities for imaging and sensing capabilities at transmission speeds that are largely unheard of today.

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering is joining the lead institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara, in the effort, which includes researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; University of California, San Diego; Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The scope of the project starts with devices around 140 GHz and goes up to 540 GHz—and possibly higher, according to Sundeep Rangan, professor of electrical and computer engineering at NYU Tandon and director of the research center NYU Wireless. Rangan is overseeing NYU’s participation in ComSenTer.

From an engineering standpoint, “the field is definitely new,” he told FierceWirelessTech. Even the millimeter wave space is relatively new, although there’s been a huge amount of R&D the past five years. But with terahertz, “it’s probably, I would say, where we were in the millimeter wave space maybe on the order of five to 10 years ago.”

While some are invoking the 6G moniker, Rangan is not hyping it from that angle. “We still need to see what happens with 5G,” he said. They also need to determine if there’s a market need, and the project will investigate that, as well applications.

The automotive space is one potential area for the very high frequencies. “As you increase the frequency, you get better resolution,” Rangan said, so it might be attractive for something like automotive radar or depth sensor systems.

The researchers will also test how viable the band would be for cellular service.

“I think one of the big issues that people have with millimeter wave is there still needs to be some confirmation that you will reliably get coverage in outdoor environments,” he said.

The initial millimeter wave field trials seem to suggest that people are getting more coverage than they anticipated, but whether that’s enough for consumers to be viable, “I think we’ll find out in the next five years as the systems get deployed” he said. That will also provide insight into the higher frequencies. “We’ll definitely be doing outdoor measurements as part of the [ComSenTer] project.”

The project is sponsored by the Semiconductor Research Corporation, which contributed a $1.9 million grant to the efforts. The NYU team is leading the systems research, specifically developing end-to-end applications for high speed communications and imaging systems.

In an encouraging move for the space, the FCC earlier this year launched a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on a plan to make the spectrum above 95 GHz more readily accessible for new services and technologies.

RELATED: FCC looks to unleash spectrum above 95 GHz

The mmWave Coalition, a group of companies interested in removing regulatory barriers to technologies and using frequencies ranging from 95 to 275 GHz, is urging (PDF) the commission to keep an open mind about mobile uses.

While there may be little present interest in using the above 95 GHz spectrum for mobile services, it wants the commission to make clear that the rules for fixed services do not preclude the eventual use of these bands for shared fixed and mobile uses.

Editor's note: Article corrected May 12 to reflect the University of California at Santa Barbara as the lead institution in the project.