In 2019, at the request of the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed the Panel on Review of the Communications Technology Laboratory (CTL) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (the “panel”), having earlier established the following statement of work:
The NASEM shall form a panel of experts who shall perform an independent technical assessment of the quality of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Communications Technology Laboratory (CTL). The panel shall prepare a final report that reflects the expert consensus opinion of the panelists based on materials provided by NIST before and during a site visit to NIST laboratories in Boulder, CO. During this site visit, the panel shall conduct an in-depth technical assessment and draft a consensus report addressing the topics requested by the NIST Director in his or her charge to the panel. Subsequent to the site visit, the panel shall finalize the report draft and the NASEM shall conduct any necessary reviews to ensure that the final report is of high quality and is impartial and objective in its assessment of the NIST CTL.
The assessment shall be responsive to the charge from the NIST Director. The following draft criteria for the assessment are proposed by the NIST sponsor and are expected to be formalized in the charge of the NIST Director that will be provided at contract award, expected November 1, 2018.
- The technical merit of the current laboratory program relative to current state-of-the-art programs worldwide;
- The portfolio of scientific expertise as it supports the ability of the organization to achieve its stated objectives;
- The adequacy of the laboratory budget, facilities, equipment, and human resources, as they affect the quality of the laboratory’s technical programs; and
- The effectiveness by which the laboratory disseminates its program outputs.
The Director of NIST requested that the panel focus its assessment on the following factors: (1) the organization’s technical programs; (2) the portfolio of scientific expertise within the organization; (3) the adequacy of the organization’s facilities, equipment, and human resources; and (4) the effectiveness by which the organization disseminates its program outputs.1
One of the six laboratories of NIST, the CTL was created in 2014 and “promotes the development and deployment of advanced communications technologies through the dissemination of high quality
1 W.G. Copan, Ph.D., Director, NIST and Undersecretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology, “Memorandum for Panel of the National Research Council Committee on National Institute of Standards and Technology Technical Programs,” March 14, 2019.
measurements, data, and research supporting U.S. innovation, industrial competitiveness, and public safety.”2 Of CTL’s four organizational units, three are located at NIST’s Boulder, Colorado, campus and a fourth in Gaithersburg, Maryland. As of June 2019, there were slightly fewer than 200 personnel in the CTL. There are in addition 29 term appointments.
The national importance of wireless communications provides an opportunity for CTL to play an important role in the economic vitality of the country. CTL can play an even greater role in the evolution of the connected world the public has come to expect through research advances. The anticipated deployment of a variety of new, connected “smart” devices will require greater access to spectrum and advanced networked communication technologies. Not only the devices, but new applications such as telehealth, machine-to-machine communications, and augmented reality will stimulate demand for wireless communications.
CTL’s role in communications research and engineering includes key areas such as: spectrum measurement and propagation modeling; applied research on wireless network access technologies; and applied research, testing, and evaluation of newly developed communication technologies. CTL also provides technical support to other federal agencies and the private sector, principally for spectrum measurement and analysis of spectrum sharing and service coexistence.
For this review, the CTL director asked that the panel focus on two main categories: public safety communications and metrology for advanced communications.3 Public safety communications addresses the CTL priority area of the same name. Metrology for advanced communications addresses three of the four CTL priority areas: (1) trusted spectrum testing, (2) fundamental metrology for communications, and (3) Next Generation Wireless (5G and Beyond). The following paragraphs describe the accomplishments, opportunities, and challenges of the technical programs, as well as the expertise, adequacy of resources, and dissemination of outputs for work of the CTL divisions in support of these two main categories. Included as well are key recommendations the panel considered especially worthy of attention.
The panel visited the Boulder CTL laboratories on June 25-27, 2019, to receive briefings from and hold discussions with CTL staff—including staff who traveled from Gaithersburg, Maryland—to learn about current activities in CTL’s laboratories, strengths and weaknesses, and plans for the near future.
The first main category of CTL’s work addressed by the panel was Public Safety Communications. CTL’s Public Safety Communication Program is charged with important research tasks for enabling future broadband wireless capabilities for the public safety community. Through the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division was appropriated $300 million4 to conduct research focused on improving future broadband public safety wireless communications. The PSCR Division further defined this research through a successful and broad stakeholder outreach, to include the following: mission-critical voice, location-based services, analytics, enhanced user interface/user experience (UI/UX), security, and resilient systems. While the PSCR has been very successful in outreach, initial research, and engagement, there remain challenges for the group, including budget and human resources and the need to articulate a long term research plan that incorporates research from other industries and other parts of the federal government. PSCR has made use of open innovation tools such as prize challenges.5 Key recommendations include:
2 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Undated, “This is CTL,” U.S. Department of Commerce, Boulder, Colo., p. 1.
4 The first portion of the allocated funds ($100 million) became available to PSCR at the start of FY 2016, the second allocation ($186.4 million) became available July 2016, and the final allocation ($13.6 million) became available FY 2017.
5 Prize challenges are financial award or incentive-based activities aimed at a diverse array of non-federal contributors working on discrete, well-defined challenges. These were authorized by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.
Key Recommendation: The PSCR Division should develop an research and development roadmap for mission-critical voice, considering how the various activities it includes therein can be used as integral elements. CTL should consult on the roadmap’s development with other organizations, both government and commercial, to determine overlap of technology development. CTL should conduct its own critical technology assessment to inform its roadmap. (Chapter 3)
Key Recommendation: CTL should update its roadmap for public safety analytics, taking into consideration projected future areas of interest. (Chapter 3)
Key Recommendation: The PSCR Division should consider integration of the UI/UX (user interface/user experience) research and prize challenges with the other PSCR portfolios as appropriate provided efficiencies can be gained by such integration. The division should consider developing a methodology and process for studying UI/UX along with the study of new technologies. (Chapter 3)
Although the Division’s reliance on term employees makes sense given the short timeframe of the funding and it appears to be sufficient to make progress in each of the research areas, the limited growth of PSCR internal expertise is a concern. PSCR is addressing key issues in public safety, and it is likely that the research mission will continue to be of importance beyond the 2022 end date of the appropriated funds from the spectrum auction.
Key Recommendation: CTL should evaluate the possibility and pros and cons of a strategic expansion of PSCR’s internal research staff aimed at ensuring continuity of research in key priority areas in particular after fiscal year 2022 when the spectrum auction funds will have been spent or no be longer available. In addition, CTL should develop a plan for leveraging the expertise developed through the prize challenges. (Chapter 3)
The activities that fall under the second main category under review, metrology for advanced communications, address fundamental and near-term application measurement problems for emerging communication standards. The CTL is poised to capitalize on a number of timely and impactful opportunities, including: quantum-enabled metrology with applications in quantum information science and engineering (QISE); a new framework for channel metrology and modeling and innovative hardware and platforms for next generation wireless networks; and machine learning, data science, and statistical techniques. This group appears to be well-resourced for the tasks they are conducting. The staff are consistently and diligently engaged in dissemination of their scientific and technical findings. A key overarching recommendation is:
Key Recommendation: CTL should develop a 3-year or 5-year strategic plan for its activities in metrology for advanced communication, to include: identifying and evaluating new research directions and opportunities for growth; developing strategic partnerships with other NIST laboratories for pursuing new areas; identifying resource needs (equipment, facilities, staff) for pursuing strategic growth areas of research; identifying and pursuing internal and external sources of funding to support the plan; and developing measurable criteria and metrics for annually evaluating progress toward 3-year and 5-year goals. The strategic plan should explain how its execution will support the successful attainment of the CTL priorities. (Chapter 4)
The physical infrastructure is mostly adequate for the current metrology programs. CTL’s measurement facilities—currently available on a supervised basis to outside users through mechanisms such as cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA)—can be monetized as a “paid service” to be provided to users in the research and business communities in the United States and
worldwide. For this to succeed, it is essential that the facilities be able to handle latent demand for such services.
Key Recommendation: CTL should undertake planning and resource allocation for renewal and renovation of its measurement facilities with a degree of urgency to support their functioning as a “paid service” to the research and business communities. (Chapter 4)
Three organizational units contribute to the area of metrology for advanced communications: the Radio Frequency Technology (RFT) Division, the Wireless Networks (WN) Division, and the National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Test Network (NASCTN) program.
The RFT Division engages in fundamental radio frequency (RF) metrology research and standards to characterize both integrated circuits and systems, wired and wireless. The RFT team has delivered significant results, and, for example, the Rydberg atom electric field sensor appears to have breakthrough potential. The CTL has proactively identified optical communications and QISE as promising new areas for research.
Key Recommendation: The Radio Frequency Technology Division should broaden its research portfolio into the areas of optical communications technology and quantum information science and engineering—both of which it has identified already— while leveraging strategic collaborative partnerships with other NIST laboratories, including the Physical Measurement Laboratory and the Information Technology Laboratory. (Chapter 4)
The Wireless Networks Division has been heavily focused in 5G (fifth-generation wireless) technology, metrology, and applications and is the steward for the successful 5G mmWave Channel Model Alliance. There are a number of opportunities and challenges for this division as their work progresses toward the millimeter-wave efforts, as well as outdoor measurements in novel applications, such as communication channels for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Key Recommendation: To develop closer partnerships with industry, academia and governments and to explore new sources of revenue the Wireless Networks Division and Radio Frequency Technology Division should integrate and build on the recent accomplishments in 5G millimeter-wave channel modeling, millimeter-wave propagation channel sounding and measurements, on-wafer measurements, over-the-air measurements, and a new design framework for future vector network analyzers. (Chapter 4)
CTL jointly established the NASCTN program in 2015 with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA’s) Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) to organize a network of test facilities to support spectrum-related testing, modeling, and analysis.6 The work done by the NASCTN program in CTL, covering the broad topic of shared use of federal spectrum by commercial systems, has contributed to several high-value, high-impact spectrum reallocation efforts in the past few years and is positioned to have a continuing role in helping coordinate this very important national resource. Such efforts address coexistence metrics for shared-spectrum environments, test methods for spectrum management methods, and waveform metrology and calibration. The work has been addressing, in a necessarily reactive manner, problems in spectrum as they are identified. A more strategic and proactive approach toward spectrum sensing and sharing would enhance the impact of the team in regulatory actions and industry standardization activities.
6 An additional three federal agencies have since joined: the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The current operating model in NASCTN is to respond to requests for spectrum sensing and characterization from industry or other federal agencies. Given the level of current staffing, this is probably appropriate. In the future, the program could have a much broader impact if it would independently select “hot-button” spectrum issues on which to work and increase the number of staff appropriately.
Key Recommendation: Consistent with its future staffing levels, NASCTN should take a more proactive role in advising on future spectrum allocation decisions. NASCTN should engage impartially with all sides of the debates on emerging and urgent issues. (Chapter 4)
Key Recommendation: CTL should continue vigorous support for the spectrum sensing and sharing activity, which has delivered impactful results. (Chapter 4)
Since its inception in 2015, CTL has established significant efforts in measurement and standards relating to spectrum use and other wireless technologies. The four organizational units can all claim impressive achievements. The CTL has attained a prominent role in public safety communications, including FirstNet—the emerging public safety broadband network in the United States. CTL has also recently launched the multi-agency NASCTN, designed to help create a trusted spectrum testing and measurement organization to aid in spectrum sharing efforts. RTF and WN divisions have made novel findings for measurement of SI-derived quantities and for elaboration and testing of next-generation wireless concepts. There are opportunities and challenges to these portfolios created by the changing application space and stakeholder needs. The anticipated end in 2022 of the auction proceeds is a further challenge to mission and staffing. The recent upgrades to its facilities present opportunities to articulate with non-federal groups wishing to access these test beds, which, furthermore, could be monetized.