Iowa State receives $16 million grant to study rural broadband connectivity

A project led by Iowa State University has received a $16 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create a city-scale testbed aimed at studying how to bring down the cost of delivering broadband to rural communities.

Titled “ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities,” the project will serve as a first-of-its-kind, real-world wireless experimental infrastructure for smart and connected rural communities.

ARA will establish its wireless living lab across Iowa State University, the city of Ames, and surrounding farms and rural communities in Central Iowa. Creating a deeply programmable infrastructure, ARA will feature a wide range of wireless technologies as well as an application focus on precision agriculture in both crop and livestock farms.

Partnering with ISU on the project are Collins Aerospace, John Deere, U.S. Cellular, the Iowa Department of Transportation, among other organizations.

The NSF grant includes $8 million in federal funding and a matching investment in the form of cash and in-kind contributions from PAWR industry consortium partners. In addition to $7 million from NSF, the ARA platform has received another $1 million in financial support from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Leading the ARA project for Iowa State is Hongwei Zhang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “ARA enables research in end-to-end broadband infrastructures for rural and remote areas, and it features high-performance, programmable platforms in wireless access, wireless backhaul, and edge and cloud,” Hongwei said. “By supporting fundamental communication services such as ultra-reliable, low-latency communications, ARA enables field research studies such as tele-operations of vehicles or drones, that are of interest to rural and urban regions but are difficult to conduct in urban settings in early stages of the exploration.”

With the launch of this rural broadband platform, Iowa’s wireless testbed will be just the fourth in the country joining New York City, Salt Lake City and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

“This is what Iowa State University’s land-grant mission is all about—bringing to bear our research and innovation to meet the needs of Iowans,” said ISU President Wendy Wintersteen in a release announcing the grant. “Rural broadband has become an essential need. Iowa State is very excited to work with our partners to develop affordable wireless technologies that will help connect and create opportunities for families, schools, farms, and communities across the state.”

Previous coverage

Expanding Broadband Access Across Iowa -Sept. 9, 2020

ISU project named finalist for rural broadband initiative, wins $300,000 grant -July 29, 2020