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  5. Xinyu Zhang receives NSF CAREER Award to improve wireless network performance

Xinyu Zhang receives NSF CAREER Award to improve wireless network performance

Xinyu Zhang's solution to interference in wireless networks, as shown in this diagram, is to establish "cluster-based" structures.

On a college campus or in a large building, the wireless network you’re using comprises dozens of access points—all of which can interfere with each other’s signals. Adding more access points can only do so much to increase that network’s capacity. In fact, because of interference among access points, adding too many can even cause a network to lose capacity. 

Xinyu Zhang wants to break through that obstacle.

Zhang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to support his research. The award, which supports promising early-career researchers, will provide Zhang with $490,000 in funding to develop wireless networks that get more powerful as they grow larger. Zhang says he can achieve this by grouping access points into clusters, which would then communicate with each other in a manner analogous to the way individual access points communicate now.

"Traditionally, wireless network research is node-based, but here it's group-based,” Zhang says. "When we allow different access points to coordinate, we can think about all of them as one big access point. And because they are a single thing, they cannot interfere with each other.”

CAREER winners also are required to develop an educational component of their research project, so Zhang plans to take a major theme in his research and bring it to the classroom. One major key to overcoming the current limitations in wireless communication, he says, is making sure that the disciplines of computer science and communication systems work together. Indeed, much of Zhang’s work so far is based on an education that combines the two disciplines: He earned his bachelor’s degree in communications and electronic engineering from Harbin Institute of Technology in his native China, an MS in computer engineering from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan.

The NSF support will help Zhang create a laboratory to host a course in which undergraduate students can build an intuitive, coherent understanding of how wireless networks operate, effectively combining material they otherwise would learn in three or four separate courses. This will require building software and a signal-processing algorithm from the ground up—but it’ll be worth it to create UW-Madison graduates who see wireless communication in a more complete way, Zhang says.

"We can use this test bed to tell students, in a very empirical and visual manner, what they're experiencing when they see interference, and how signals are distorted, and what the practical and empirical effects are,” Zhang says.

Initially this will benefit juniors and seniors, but Zhang intends to develop course materials and open-source tools that perhaps even high-school and middle-school students could use. 

By looking at wireless networks from all of the relevant angles, Zhang believes he and others can make them much more powerful and reliable.

"Some of the new techniques developed by communications people haven't really been translated into actual capacity improvement from a network perspective, and vice versa,” Zhang says.

Scott Gordon