In a conference room overlooking Manhattan’s Greenwich Village last week, NYU showcased research being conducted by professors from its various branches—its school of medicine, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and Polytechnic Institute—at an event titled “Beyond 4G: The Future of Wireless.”

Nine academics presented their findings on the wireless environment of today and tomorrow.

Driving slow in the fast lane

There’s a reason wireless carriers offer you deals to upgrade your phone—and it doesn’t involve a nefarious scheme with planned obsolescence at its root. Flip phones and other legacy phones simply bog wireless traffic down. And, with that traffic doubling every year (users accessing Netflix alone account for 20 percent of the traffic today), fourth-generation or 4G wireless technology won’t be able to handle the demand.

“You’ve got someone trying to use Netflix with a modern phone, and then you have someone else who’s got an old phone and whenever they use their phone, it clogs up the network,” explained Ted Rappaport, who heads up the Center for Wireless Internet Communications and Advanced Technology (WICAT), a research laboratory based at NYU-Poly. That means those of us still sporting 3G phones can go ahead and upgrade to the 4Gs or iPhone 5 and tell everyone we’ve done it for the collective digital good.

Adding more lanes to the information superhighway

Even if everyone did have the latest and greatest in wireless technology, it doesn’t mean our consumption patterns and behaviors would change. The voice transmission and exchange that defined what a phone was for most of its history is becoming an ever smaller aspect of its function. More and more smart “phones” are used for purchases, or as cameras, or TV-viewing devices.

These data-heavy activities require more bandwidth or wireless spectrum.  Federal agencies, such as the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense, reserve certain frequencies that comprise a large block of the spectrum. But just last week the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a report identifying 95 MHz of bandwidth that could be used for commercial mobile service.

Wireless carriers may have to share that bandwidth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said presenter Shivendra Panwar, Director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications. According to a study conducted by one of his students last year, if two identical wireless carriers merge, capacity quadruples, resulting in twice the bandwidth for the customer. Other studies show that greater bandwidth requires less, not more, power, added Rappaport, which translates into a longer lifespan for the battery of your wireless devices.

Content in emerging markets

With all the talk about moving past 4G, it was easy to forget that these technologies don’t translate in quite the same way in the developing world. “If you go to a place like India or Africa, the way a cellular tower is running is chaotic,” said Lakshminarayanan Subramanian, a computer scientist. He reminded the audience that, in some developing nations, wireless technology is powered by diesel generators. We need to “rethink cellular,” he said. Subramanian explained that users in such countries may not be able to connect from as many locations as they can here but it’s still possible for them to access focused bandwidth at low spectrum for a rich content experience. 

Subramanian also acknowledged the escalating rate of content production. Connectivity, unfortunately, hasn’t kept up. As a result, digital marketers need to be aware not just of the type of content they provide in emerging markets, but how users there acquire it. For instance, it might sound like a good idea to add culturally sensitive, appropriately translated video to your site, but how effective is it if it loads so slowly that users abandon it? That doesn’t mean content producers should serve mealy fare, though. “Even if I’m in a little village in Ghana, I want to access Facebook,” said Subramanian. “There needs to be a much deeper understanding of what will penetrate and what will not. The adoption curve is not the same as what you see here.”

Hospitals of the future 

While America’s technology infrastructure may be on sounder footing than elsewhere, it’s health care system is not, as current debates about Obamacare indicate. The national discussion around health care has sharpened public attention on medical records and how they’re maintained and systemized (or not, as the case may be). Dan Sodickson, director of NYU’s Langone Center for Biomedical Imaging, suggested how, in the hospital of the future, “information about the patient can flow with the patient as they move through the hospital.”

He also alerted attendees to the advances being made in compressed sensing. “Previously, you had to know what was in the image before you compressed it,” said Sodickson, but with compressed sensing, “we can acquire much less data and go much, much faster and still get the full image content.” That’s great news for patients who wish to decrease the time it takes to get an MRI. It also means improvements in digital photography.

Who’s got your back?

These revelations prompted the audience to ask the presenters about privacy. Fewer hassles in tracking down your health records sounds awfully appealing—no one likes waiting on hold to talk to a frazzled nurse—but the idea of one’s health data flowing from hospital room to hospital room for any hacker to lift was not especially enticing to attendees. 

Justin Cappos, who teaches in NYU-Poly’s computer science department, admitted that protecting against security breaches will continue to be a concern in the ever growing wireless world. For instance, cyber security experts at large corporations are now contending with the cyber security threats that 3G or 4G personal phones brought into the workplace raise. Unable to go into too much detail, Cappos described how hackers may be able to circumvent firewalls or other cybersecurity measures by sneaking in through a “back door” like an app that an employee may have downloaded on his or her phone.

He also suggested that vigilante acts in the digital space may occur more often, pointing to the example of a Philadelphia man known simply as “Eric,” who uses a cell phone jammer to disrupt the public conversations of those he deems are talking too loudly on their mobile phones. The story raised appreciative laughs from the audience.


Some time soon you’re going to try and load a mobile site on your phone, and it will do so more slowly than you thought possible in 2012. You’ll look around impatiently and glare at the flip-phone user nearby, convinced that he’s slowing down wireless traffic—until you notice the teenager across from you pointing a cell phone jammer in your direction. 

Whether or not this scenario transpires remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Ted Rappaport and his cohorts are working to realize 5G wireless technology more fully. Within the next three months, NYU is expected to officially introduce NYU WIRELESS, a new center that should continue to enhance the area’s reputation as Silicon Alley.