Broadband telecom center explores last-mile technology
The Georgia Institute of Technology's Broadband Telecommunications Center (BTC), with nearly $3 million in funding from the Georgia state lottery, is establishing itself as a valuable research center for the cable and telecommunications industries, and has the attention of a growing number of member cable operators and telecommunications companies.
The center is a collaboration between Georgia Tech University, Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, with state support from the Georgia Research Alliance. BTC is a center within the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT). Its mission is to explore technologies which eventually could bring advanced interactive services to the home and complete the "last mile" of digital communications.
What has inspired a group of cable and telecommunications companies to participate as members of BTC is the diversity and depth of research occurring at the center, and a somewhat unique approach to its mission: To inexpensively provide complete, scalable systems and services including distance learning, telecommuting, community services, interactive games, on-demand movies and more. Currently, nearly 20 companies are members of BTC, including Cox Communications, BellSouth, Sprint, GTE and others.
Each member company has a seat on the BTC advisory board and works with the center to define the technical directions of the program, and assists in the transfer of technology. The center is organized around a set of projects that are partially funded by the industry members.Low-cost technologies
The idea for BTC sprung from what its founders felt was a need for a university like Georgia Tech to address a number of specific technology needs, such as last-mile services for the cable and telecommunications industries. With the sterling reputation of Georgia Tech behind them, Daniel Howard and John Limb, both faculty members at the school, embarked on their mission of creating BTC.
"We felt there were no universities addressing cable issues, so we proposed BTC to the Georgia Research Alliance. Our whole idea was to create a partnership between the university and member companies and make a connection between graduates and those companies. Our goal is to be as relevant as we can be to the industry," says Daniel Howard, associate director of BTC.
Using three major access laboratories, projects are funded by the center and are determined by its members. The labs focus on three specific applications: Hybrid fiber/coax; switched access technology such as fiber-to-the-home and digital subscriber line (xDSL); and broadband wireless technology. Yet, according to Howard, the center's uniqueness is not just in cable. "Ours is the first center targeting broadband telecommunications to the home and real challenges such as how to get the high-speed pipe into, and out of, the home. We don't pursue the highest technology available. Our emphasis is on low-cost technologies."
The center's first challenge was to convince a diverse group of researchers at Georgia Tech that these technological issues were important to both the cable industry and to the university, and that took time, admits Howard.
"Part of the challenge is once you cross departmental lines academically, it becomes difficult. However, the merging and converging technologies in the past have been just in television. Now, the opportunities go beyond that and are huge, and some aren't even tapped yet."
For the university, coordinating the academic departments into one group working with BTC towards the same objective was a daunting task. "It was like herding cats, but we had the right message and good timing," says Howard.
The message to potential members was sent via demonstrations of cable modems, rooftop-to-rooftop wireless cable links, digital photography, distance learning and other applications. The message, Howard says, was received loud and clear: "Following the demonstrations, we built a cadre of companies interested in supporting us." The center is now in its third year of operation, with funding expected to continue from its growing membership roster and Georgia state funds.
BTC's research program is divided into five areas: The physical layer, which addresses the media to, and within the home, with twisted pair, coaxial cable, wireless, satellite and optical fiber. Typical projects are characterizing and modeling channels and sources of interface on the various media, and noise cancellation in twisted pair.
Networking issues, which include scalability of network resources, new protocols for shared media, network management and network security. Projects in this discipline include two-way data transmission to the home via satellite, and network and security architectures for the home and residential gateway.
Systems and software focuses on middleware and storage systems support for scalable services, i.e., evolving a platform on which to build new multimedia services. BTC's projects include new uses for very large personal storage systems.
The applications segment includes links between the school and the home, the office and the home, new applications of information technology and efficient management within the home.
Business impact modeling assesses the economic impact of residential broadband telecommunications. Its purpose is to better understand the demand characteristics for new services and applications, and develop cost benefits. BTC is currently working on projects such as large demographic surveys of potential users, and the development of taxonomy of electronic commerce transactions.
A key benefit to members, Howard says, is the opportunity to work with the center's testbed and tools, which interconnect homes with an information infrastructure lab and broadband ATM backbone using four distinct last-mile technologies. The testbed includes ATM networks, video servers and the campus video network. Tools include simulation packages, traffic models and noise models.
"The idea is for a broad range of industry ideas and benefits," explains Howard. "If a project only benefits a small number of companies, we submit a separate research proposal for 'non-core research,' and it's up to the small group of companies to fund it. For broad range research that will benefit all of the member companies, we submit a 'core research' proposal. In addition, all of the intellectual property rights belong to the member companies."Good neighbors
One of the member companies, Cox Communications, is a neighbor of Georgia Tech and BTC, and has been active with the center since its inception. "We were introduced to BTC through the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology and have been able to direct work on at least one project, distance learning," says Alex Best, senior vice president of engineering for Cox Communications.
With the center being so close to Cox, the company developed a working relationship with BTC, leading to a number of joint projects. "It's been a good opportunity for us to make improvements in hybrid fiber/coaxial networks for a modest investment," says Best. "And when you work with a highly-respected institution like Georgia Tech, there are a lot of good students. We definitely think there is a benefit." Cox, and other members, are given an opportunity on an annual basis to participate, and according to Best, the company plans to continue its partnership with BTC.
The benefits to Cox, and to both the cable and telecommunications industries, may be even greater in the long-term. Students currently working on specific research projects today will be the industry engineers, technicians and leaders of tomorrow, gaining invaluable, hands-on experience through their work on the myriad projects at BTC.
Adds Howard, "Our goal is to be the CableLabs of broadband telecommunications, or the research arm for the industry, and enable our students to work for a cross-section of industries. Once our mission is understood, our job is to then provide a competitive advantage to our member companies. Typically, universities have not done that. In the past, they have developed 'cable-compatible' graduates. We want to develop 'cable-ready' graduates."
As those graduates move into engineering and technical positions within the telecommunications and cable industries, companies and graduates could benefit from their BTC experience. "Broadband to the home is a new area for students, so they really aren't aware of the job potential in this discipline," says Mike Cummins, director and CEO of the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT). "BTC has done very well in terms of building capabilities, test beds and services, and is very well-organized with a range of multi-functional capabilities. Its projects are challenging and rich enough to attract more quality students, who should become very marketable."
GCATT assists BTC in its marketing efforts and provides leads to the center for potential corporate members. Adds Cummins, "Attracting and keeping quality engineers and technicians is a real challenge for the cable industry. BTC has done extremely well thus far in combining real research efficiency and long-term thinking."
The real results may not only be in the form of cost-efficient technologies applicable to the cable industry, but in the long-view, could inspire quality graduates to pursue careers in the cable and telecommunications industries.