Student Team Gains Real-World Experience Through Wireless Market Trial

If you want to know how millennials use wireless data services for school, work, and leisure, there’s no better place to look than a college campus.

That’s the thinking behind Utopian Wireless Corp. and Atelum LLC’s plan to initiate an advanced wireless broadband market trial in Charlottesville. The companies are partnering with a team of students and faculty from the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science to conduct a trial that will gather data on the use of Utopian’s 2.5 GHz wireless spectrum.

Utopian and Atelum, which is led by a UVA Engineering alumnus, intend to market the new wireless broadband spectrum as a product users can purchase to supplement their existing wireless provider’s data service. The wireless broadband service would provide users with additional speed and bandwidth, making it appealing to wireless users who stream video or use data-intensive apps on their mobile devices.

The opportunity to be involved in a hands-on project like the wireless trial appeals to students like fourth-year electrical engineering major Christopher Moore.

“We made this a class, so students can take a class that’s solely project-based. They can get out of the classes and apply some of this theory,” Moore said.

The student team comprises 14 first- through fourth-year students from every UVA engineering discipline other than aerospace engineering. Along with Moore, the group is led by fourth-year electrical engineering major Dustin Widmann and Professor Steven Wilson of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“We have radio frequency and radio wave propagation experts, computer programming and data management experts, and mechanical engineers to help with structural studies. Our systems engineers contribute by looking at the system as a whole and being able to present that information” to decision-makers at the school and university level, Moore said.

In addition to solving theoretical problems in small groups during twice-weekly meetings, the team has worked with UVA Facilities Management to identify a site for the wireless tower they must construct in order to begin the trial.

The team will receive wireless devices and SIM cards from the tower owner, Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd., and test the devices to make sure that they are operating as planned.

The trial first will be opened to a group of relatively static users, such as professors and staff at UVA Engineering. The team will provide them with broadband wireless modems for their computers.

Once the students have established that the network is functioning as planned with static users, they will open the trial to additional mobile users. They plan to advertise for users on social media and via email, as well as through more traditional media channels such as radio.

The students will gather data on network use and interpret it to help Utopian and Atelum plan for future deployment of broadband wireless spectrum in other markets. The team is working to refine the trial timeline as they set up the network.

While the project is technically part of a course, ENGR 3502, in which all the team members are enrolled, the students see it as a more open-ended venture. “We want to continue to gather data even after the semester ends,” said second-year computer science major Vijay Edupuganti.

According to Atelum CEO and UVA Engineering alum John Muleta (SIE ’86, JD/MBA ’93), the project represents an opportunity for engineering students to get real-world experience. “It’s a good opportunity for students to get experience in actually operating a system, interpreting the data, and making business decisions,” Muleta said.

Moore agrees. “It’s a taste of what the real world is like. Students are learning to speak up, to be a professional,” he said. “No one can turn in assignments late; we all have to get our work done on time. We have hard deadlines on this project.”

The data that the student team gathers will help Utopian and Atelum more accurately target their product offerings and pricing. Muleta, a member of UVA Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, hopes the team will help the companies determine the answers to a number of questions that will inform their business decisions.

“What’s the combination of capabilities and services that will get a user to add on this type of service?” Muleta said. “How much would you be willing to pay? How much better than your existing data service does it have to be?”

Utopian and Atelum hope to take advantage not only of the number of young wireless users in the area, but also the entrepreneurial spirit that has led to a significant increase in mobile application development in recent years.

“The Charlottesville community is bustling with the energy of the University’s students, and we want to tap into that to understand how we can best serve the upcoming generation with affordable and useful broadband services,” Muleta said. “There is also a great entrepreneurial spirit in and around the University focused on healthcare, cyber-security and consumer apps that will be unleashed by the availability of advanced broadband.”