Q&A with Edward Oughton, professor at George Mason College and Fb tutorial collaborator

In this monthly series of interviews, we put members of the academic community and their critical research in the spotlight – as thought partners, collaborators, and independent contributors.

For September we have nominated Edward Oughton, a professor at George Mason University. Oughton has been an active member of the Facebook research community since 2018 and has contributed unique interdisciplinary insights into connectivity challenges. In these Q&A, Oughton shares more about his research background, how he started working with Facebook, his research interests, and his current projects.

Q: Tell us about your academic background.

Edward Oughton: I have an MPhil and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. My doctoral thesis originally dealt with urban and regional economics and focused on the economic impact of broadband connectivity infrastructure. I then worked as a postdoc at Cambridge Judge Business School, refocusing on infrastructure modeling but developing risk analysis for the insurance industry. I then moved to the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute as a Senior Research Associate. I have also held visiting positions in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon and in the Network and Systems Group at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory. I started my current position at George Mason in 2020.

This background is obviously very mixed as I’ve spent some time in economics, engineering, and computer science. I used to see this as a weakness, but over time I have found that these three areas overlap very often, but there are few researchers who can work on these topics in an integrated way.

Q: Tell us about your role at George Mason University and the type of research you specialize in.

EO: I am currently an assistant professor in the field of data analytics and I enjoy being given the freedom to work very broadly. Other research opportunities often require that you publish in a very narrow selection of subject-specific journals, so I’m grateful that I’m not so limited.

One of my main areas of research is in broadband connectivity, including developing and testing strategies that will help connect more people to faster internet. The connectivity challenges are very complex and in order to implement sustainable connectivity solutions we need to solve technical, economic and social challenges at the same time.

Today’s industry practice is based on very simple spreadsheet models that use very basic assumptions. However, these simplifying models do not address the central challenges directly. For example, network design models do not include considerations on frequency strategy, whereas studies on frequency policy often do not directly involve technical decisions.

In contrast, my research seeks to develop holistic models that can be used to compare the design of different network architectures as if they were being built by a network operator. I then use these estimates to quantify the investment required to connect disconnected users. Such an approach reduces the uncertainty compared to spreadsheet approaches, since both the network quality of the service and the costs of the network can be estimated using a single model.

Q: What have you been working on lately?

EO: Together with Julius Kusuma and Erik Boch, we completed a project that focuses on diffractive wireless backhaul without line of sight. The Facebook team developed the technology and hosted various test sites, with my work then quantifying the greater cost savings from applying such an approach to a full network, using the example of Peru and Indonesia. The software code base is open source and freely available to other engineers to explore and develop.

We also published a qualitative test in which we critically compared 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technologies, which is a pleasant change from purely quantitative research. The paper has received a lot of attention and is currently the most downloaded paper in Telecommunications Policy magazine. We caution that cellular technologies like 5G are best suited for users who need mobility when moving between their home or work. In contrast, Wi-Fi technologies like the new Wi-Fi 6 standard are much cheaper and easier to use for indoor users. A group of commentators claim that 5G will eliminate the need for Wi-Fi, but we disagree.

More recently, we have evolved the broadband models that were designed to better understand the sustainability implications of universal broadband. This is rarely considered, but it is becoming more and more important to be aware of it. For example, we are interested in quantifying the environmental and sustainability effects of various network architectures. To reduce this impact, you often need to reduce energy consumption, which can potentially minimize costs and thus make it economically viable to deploy broadband connections in many difficult areas.

Q: When and how did you start working with Facebook?

EO: Julius Kusuma read my early 5G assessment papers from around 2017 and invited me to a Facebook research workshop in Menlo Park. We then discussed possible projects and I was encouraged to apply for the open call for Facebook Research. I submitted an open science research proposal that was eventually funded and we have successfully published numerous articles.

Q: What are some of the research challenges you are addressing with Facebook? How do you approach these questions and contribute your expertise?

EO: Our goal is to bring broadband connectivity to everyone in the world. Currently, the cost of building broadband infrastructure can be higher than users are willing or able to pay, creating a phenomenon commonly known as the digital divide. Increasing per capita income, and therefore consumer spending on broadband, is a major challenge. Therefore, our efforts are focused on lowering the cost of providing broadband connections, which requires new technologies, innovative business models and much more to drive telecommunications policy and regulation.

Often there are many qualitative discussions about the problems and how to solve them in order to provide better broadband connectivity around the world. My contribution is to reduce the complexity of this problem, allow quantitative modeling of broadband connectivity options, and thus provide comparative analytics that indicate performance. This evidence can then be shared with either industry decision makers or government agencies to help them make better decisions.

Q: Where can people find out more about your research?

EO: I am strongly committed to making the data, code, and written work developed as part of this research openly available so that others can evaluate and improve the activities undertaken. Hence, the code is available on my GitHub homepage and you can find our research on my Google Scholar page. My arXiv page also contains current working papers.

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