Public Access

Professor Henning Schulzrinne makes all the right connections

Jun 16 2021 | Photo Credit: Jorg Meyer
The Big Idea

A series of conversations on pioneering research.

If you’ve ever used Zoom or Skype, made a voice call on your smartphone, or otherwise streamed real-time multimedia, you can thank Professor Henning G. Schulzrinne. Schulzrinne co-developed the key protocols underlying those applications as well as many others indispensable in our remote world. Moreover, for years he’s been working tirelessly to identify how these technologies can be better leveraged to promote the public good and to expand Americans’ equitable access to them, as chief technology officer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a technology fellow in the office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, and in numerous other senior policy positions.

What’s the big idea animating your research?

There are two aspirations across all my research: one is to work on problems that have relatively clear connections to real-world concerns as opposed to theoretical issues, and, the second is to work on topics that have a public interest as opposed to a purely commercial interest wherever possible.

I’ve certainly found this approach makes it easy to attract motivated students with big ideas. They didn’t go into engineering for abstract calculations or to produce a relatively small gear in a very large mechanism, but to deal with projects more motivated by real-world concerns and to envision what a larger impact might look like.

What are some projects where you’re seeing the potential for big impact?

We have a project from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on how to measure and possibly improve the voice quality of mission-critical voice communications, such as those of first responders—fire, ambulance, and law enforcement. How does radio interference or acoustic interference like background noise affect the quality of communication? We plan to share results with NIST as well as public safety agencies who might lack such research capabilities.

Another class of projects involves better understanding communication policy through data science. For instance, using massive datasets from the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America program, we’re investigating how well the internet performed as people started staying home due to the pandemic. Internet access has been a policy issue I’ve worked on for years that became a huge topic, from students not able to access school to those who’ve had trouble booking vaccination appointments. We wanted to see how equitably broadband funding has been made across demographic groups. We can also anonymize and observe lockdown compliance, another potentially big data point to help public health officials understand human behavior in a privacy-sensitive way.

Lastly, we’re interested in the emergence of very large-scale Internet of Things measurement and control systems. These systems can help empower smart cities or help everyone check real-time air quality index maps during wild-fires. There’s now interest in using these maps to check indoor air quality because of the pandemic. But these systems tend to be very hard to develop new applications for; because they span multiple administrative domains, it’s incredibly difficulty to bridge them without making inadvertent mistakes. Our goal is to develop a programming environment and methodology to make that much, much easier to do for ordinary programmers. That’s typical of our approach: we work behind the scenes to connect widely divergent platforms so that these massive infrastructures can deliver on their enormous promise for society.

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