NSF invests $7 million to expand advanced wireless testing capabilities, propel O-RAN ecosystem innovation and growth

Wireless equipment installed at POWDER, the PAWR platform in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Wireless equipment installed at POWDER, the PAWR platform in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Additional funding for Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research expands their capabilities as Open Testing and Integration Centers and makes Open Radio Access networks testing and verification services available to a wider audience

The U.S. National Science Foundation has provided $7 million in additional funding for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program to augment the PAWR testbeds' capacities for testing and validation of Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) systems and subsystems.

Through this supplemental funding from NSF's Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), NSF builds on the announcement that multiple PAWR platforms gained O-RAN ALLIANCE approval as Open Testing and Integration Centers (OTICs) last year. More recently, AERPAW became the final PAWR platform to gain OTIC status as part of a larger operational expansion. PAWR also recently announced novel 5G O-RAN testing at the POWDER testbed in collaboration with industry innovator Mavenir. This collaboration represents a first of its kind between a commercial partner and a PAWR testbed and includes automated end-to-end O-RAN testing with the POWDER OTIC's Test Orchestration and Test Automation framework.

The additional investment from NSF provides seed funding to enable the PAWR platforms to increase their testing capabilities in this space. The funding in this key technology area is directly aligned with the "CHIPS and Science Act of 2022," which calls for accelerating the translation of technology. 

"This investment demonstrates NSF's commitment to foster use-inspired, fundamental as well as translational research to enhance advanced wireless networks across the nation," said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for TIP. "Supporting these OTICs to expand their capacity undergirds NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere."

The PAWR program, a $120 million public-private partnership to design, build and operate large-scale wireless testbeds, was originally established and funded by NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). NSF provided half the investment, and leading wireless companies and associations contributed matching funding and in-kind contributions. Since the first PAWR testbeds were funded in 2018, they have enabled the development and testing of novel wireless devices, protocols and applications and services by hundreds of active users at universities, startups and small businesses, large-sized companies and government agencies. 

"TIP's investment in PAWR testbeds will support wider adoption of O-RAN specifications and the testing and verification of O-RAN systems and subsystems that will underpin the next generation of 6G cellular network standards," said Thyaga Nandagopal, division director of TIP's Division of Innovation and Technology Ecosystems. "NSF is helping academic researchers as well as small businesses and startups by making these resources available to them to test open-source solutions at scale to power wireless research and innovation."

A portion of the NSF funding is also aimed at enabling further exploration of O-RAN use cases for rural connectivity and drone communications.

"Our continued investments in the PAWR program showcase our commitment to advancing open-source wireless testing accessibility, particularly in underserved areas with limited connectivity and for the academic research community wishing to contribute to advanced wireless research," said Ellen Zegura, division director for CISE's Division of Computer and Network Systems. "This commitment will drive us closer to the future of next-generation networks across all areas of the U.S. with promising benefits for all Americans."

NSF's investment in advancing open-source wireless testing accessibility reaches into communities and industries across the U.S. In Iowa, a fourth PAWR testbed focused on rural wireless and agriculture launched publicly in early September 2023. Last year, NSF released a Request for Information (RFI) in collaboration with the U.S Department of Defense's Office of the Undersecretary of Defense seeking information on commercial capabilities for open-source software for 5G/6G O-RANs. NSF anticipates information collected through this RFI will undergird a multiagency public-private partnership program for secure open-source 5G technology aimed at bolstering national defense systems and enhancing research opportunities for both academic and industry R&D to rapidly build innovative software solutions for NextG networks. 

For more information on the PAWR program, visit the PAWR website.