Nebraska Today: Researchers Gain Private 5G Connectivity with Husker-Net

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is scheduled to have its own 5G network in 2024.

With backing from the National Science Foundation, a group of Nebraska researchers has initiated work on “Husker-Net,” which will provide added connectivity and assistance to other university researchers both on and off campus.

Leading the project is Qiang Liu, assistant professor in the School of Computing, working alongside Mehmet Can Vuran, computing professor, and Toolika Ghose, director of research IT with Information Technology Services. Together with ITS and other researchers throughout the university community, the team aims to develop what will be the primary private 5G network in the state, and one of the few private 5G university research networks in the nation.

“The objective is to bridge gaps between what the university can offer in terms of the infrastructure and the needs of faculty so that we can provide wireless connectivity and edge computing capabilities to all our various faculty projects,” Liu expressed.

From agriculture to autonomous vehicles to the Internet of Things, the university’s diverse research activities span various locations across the state and frequently take researchers to rural areas where, unfortunately, wireless connectivity is often not available, affordable, or reliable. The Husker-Net team intends to address those issues with an end-to-end cellular edge network solution that would feature a low operating cost, open-source modules, flexible deployment, and automated management capabilities.

The team will establish four base location sites on the university’s City Campus, East Campus, Innovation Campus, and research farm situated roughly 30 miles outside the city of Lincoln. Additionally, the team will create one mobile site to assist researchers traveling to remote areas.

Liu emphasized that reliable connectivity is crucial for researchers out in the field who need to collect and transmit data in real-time, employ technology tools such as applications or sensors, or avoid time-consuming travel to perform tasks that could otherwise be automated or performed remotely.

“We have a large agriculture college, and they have a lot of experiment farms, but they barely have outdoor connectivity,” Liu mentioned. “When we have the tools deployed outside with a real network in a real scenario, it will boost our research and bridge the gap between that research and reality.”

ITS will play a significant role in Husker-Net during the development and deployment process. Once the network infrastructure is in place, ITS will monitor and manage Husker-Net, evaluating project risks, onboarding new faculty, and maintaining security.

“I’m collaborating closely with the security team and other teams within ITS, such as the network team, to ensure that the infrastructure aligns with the security requirements and policies,” Ghose emphasized. “Then we are able to help researchers understand how they can use this network and facilitate all that within ITS.”

University faculty can join the network by submitting a request through the Husker-Net website, managed by ITS. The request and accompanying project will be reviewed by members of the Husker-Net and ITS teams. Once a project is approved, faculty will be issued a SIM card and granted network access.

“What I appreciate about this project is how we can expand network connectivity access and make it more convenient for the researchers to conduct their research,” Ghose expressed. “They can concentrate on their research and don’t have to fret about setting up the connectivity for themselves in remote locations where we don’t have it.”

Initially, ITS will onboard and support 10 faculty projects from the College of Engineering, College of Architecture, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. One of those projects belongs to Yijie Xiong, assistant professor of animal science and biological systems engineering. Her research focuses specifically on using technology to study animals and improve farming practices, much of which is carried out in rural areas with extremely low or no connectivity.

“Researchers from different disciplines have pressing needs in distributing sensor networks, developing UAV-based remote sensing, and aerial applications in precision crop and livestock management,” Xiong said. “Husker-Net will enable researchers in these disciplines to address the data access and processing bottleneck caused by the lack of rural connectivity across different research stations. We anticipate it will considerably alleviate the labor needs in data collection and expedite data processing and analysis in our current and future research projects.”

In the future, the Husker-Net team plans to pursue additional projects with the Office of Research and Economic Development and other sectors of the university community, such as graduate and undergraduate students, the facilities and athletics departments, and campus police. Liu also aims to eventually expand Husker-Net beyond the university and make it accessible at an affordable cost to others, including the farmers who work with Xiong.

“Our objective is to make a substantial impact by reshaping the future of private 5G network solutions so they will be cost-effective. We want to attempt becoming a hub and a pivotal location in the Midwest to invest in the private 5G network for agriculture and rural connectivity,” Liu shared. “We’re providing very unique features and attributes with this private network, and it will be a good model for others to follow.”

University researchers interested in connecting to Husker-Net can visit and submit requests later this spring at husker-net.unl.edu.

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