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Idaho National Laboratory

From the INEEL Archives
Feature Story

INEEL and Bechtel Telecom Collaborate on Wireless Testbed

Contributed by Kathy Gatens
June 2003
Wireless test bed

The Wireless Testbed offers large-scale, independent, end-to-end testing of wired and wireless next-generation communication infrastructure to commercial and government entities.

Cell towers are sprouting up all over the American landscape like beanstalks in a well-tended garden, seeded by the enormous increase in cell phone use. A March 2002 study reported a 29 percent growth rate for cell phone ownership over the previous two years, with 62 percent of American adults owning a cell phone.

Cell phone use is no longer limited to calling home from the road to say you’ll be late, or making appointments with prospective customers. Wireless communications and technologies can turn cell phones into futuristic offices, connecting users to the Internet, allowing them to download materials, play games, and even shoot or send snapshots.

These increases in usage and capabilities are not without their growing pains, both for commercial vendors and the public. Problems range from interference and service interruption to troubles with network integration and handset interoperability. The costs and complications of solving some of these problems can be immense. But the INEEL and Bechtel Telecommunications have a suggestion to help overcome these obstacles - test it before you deploy it.

Before offering new handsets, installing thousands of new antennas, or integrating new technologies, test them in a full-scale environment. While this sounds like the standard step in any engineering design process, it hasn’t been done because it couldn’t be done. No facility existed where wireless communications could be tested in a life-size, city-like setting. Laboratory or bench-scale tests had to suffice.

Until now.

End-to-End Testing

In collaboration with Bechtel Telecommunications, INEEL has established the Bechtel/INEEL Wireless Testbed. The Testbed offers large-scale, independent, end-to-end testing of next-generation, wired and wireless communication infrastructures including 3G/4G cellular, land mobile radios, and wireless local area network systems.

Lynda Brighton, the project engineer for the Testbed, helped define the goals of the program.

"We wanted to create an environment to allow carriers and the manufacturers of next generation equipment to bring it in and test it end-to-end," said Brighton. "Test, characterize and troubleshoot their equipment free from interference with current systems, free from disrupting current customers, free from competitors’ eyes, and free from bad press if it doesn’t work the first time out."

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Over the past several months, the INEEL/Bechtel team of researchers and engineers has constructed three cell sites on the INEEL site.

Over the past several months, the INEEL/Bechtel team of researchers and engineers has constructed three cell towers at the Central Facilities Area on the INEEL site and has provisioned them with various radio equipment, test equipment and modeling/simulation tools to the tune of more than a $1 million. And this is on top of the Department of Energy’s 20 years of large communications infrastructure investments at INEEL that have resulted in 170 miles of high-speed fiber, radio labs and shops, and two mountaintop radio transmission facilities.

This agglomeration of equipment and infrastructure has another feature that further enhances its value as a test range - its location. INEEL’s remote and secure site offers a virtually RF-clean environment - the purity of a true laboratory. And yet researchers can add interference as another controlled variable in a test process. An equally important feature is INEEL’s ability to transmit at all but a few frequencies under its National Telecommunications Information Administration test station status.

The potential customer base for the Wireless Testbed is enormous. It’s so large that Bechtel Telecommunications is concentrating on the commercial side, while the INEEL addresses government.

Open for Business

With the Testbed completely operational and open for business April 1, INEEL is already discussing issues such as security and interoperability with government agencies. An unusual aspect of the nation’s communication infrastructure is that for the most part, communication systems are operated by the commercial sector. Corporations, households, metropolitan areas and even government entities are mixing a variety of wireless and wired systems for universal connectivity across all media types such as voice, data and video. Commercial efforts on mobile data networks have favored ease of use and open access to services that create new vulnerabilities in the wireless and wired infrastructures, and the new portable devices that utilize them. The Testbed can help pinpoint these vulnerabilities and test methods to overcome them.

Brighton talked about the areas for testing, including base station equipment, antennas, handsets or the big hitter for Homeland Security, 911 systems.

Wireless test bed

"In some neighborhoods, a person might not want to see a lot of cell towers," said Brighton. "We can test distributed systems, which consist of a number of smaller antennas, maybe attached to existing power poles or light poles, that send information back to a base station located at the normal cell towers. We also plan on testing smart antennas. Typical cellular antennas are omni-directional, meaning the energy is radiated equally in all directions. Smart antennas, which shape and direct their signals, waste less energy, extend range with reduced noise, and provide the capability to deny service in defined directions."

Another area of interest to both commercial entities and government agencies is the wireless local area network or WLANs. New buildings are constructed with network wiring in place, allowing employees to work "connected." But older buildings require lots of modifications to achieve connectivity. These wireless networks offer an excellent alternative, yet come with a different price tag - potential loss of security. INEEL engineers are developing complex processes incorporating WLANS; coupling their cyber security expertise with the Testbed capabilities creates a dynamic duo for organizations interested in testing these systems.

Antennas and Cell Phones

One of the strengths of the Wireless Testbed that can’t be included on any equipment list is its project engineer. Lynda Brighton traveled a circuitous route before becoming the project engineer on the Wireless Testbed.

Brighton is an Idaho Falls native who left the state to study electromagnetics at the University of Utah. There, a lecture from a Hughes Aircraft engineer so intrigued her that upon graduation she went into antenna design for Hughes.

"I very quickly learned that a bachelor’s (of science) wasn’t enough, at least for me," said Brighton. "I needed to know more about microwave theory." Fortunately for Brighton, Hughes offered a microwave master’s program in cooperation with UCLA. Brighton took advantage of the program and after completion, went from managing an antenna test facility to antenna design.

Brighton’s next move was up the California coast to Randtron Antenna Systems where she worked on the E2-C antenna and rotary coupler system, considered by many within the defense industry, the "8th Wonder of the World." But Brighton’s experience is not limited to antenna design and testing. She spent some time with Radix Technologies, developing a cell phone location system and an adaptive GPS receiver.

Lynda Brighton and Steve Williams

Steve Williams, communications systems designer, and Lynda Brighton, Testbed project engineer, led a large and diverse INEEL team in the planning, design and construction of the Wireless Testbed.

This scope of education and experience appears tailor-made for the Wireless Testbed. The INEEL was quick to recognize this and offered Brighton the position of project engineer and the opportunity to return to Idaho.

"The Wireless Testbed is not the product of one person, one organization, or even one company," said Brighton. "Within just the INEEL, it has taken a great team comprised of National Security management and engineers, IRM (Information Resource Management), Construction Management, and Site Operations to get this up and running. And, of course, we worked with Bechtel Telecommunications who not only brought its expertise, but also funded the construction of the cell sites. It took a team of intelligent, motivated individuals to conceive, design, build and operate this Testbed."

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