A research project led by Iowa State University into broadband delivery for rural communities is one of two finalists for a national grant by the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and 35 wireless companies and associations. 

A team of 10 core project researchers led by ISU professor Hongwei Zhang is laying the groundwork statewide for the project, titled ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities. As a PAWR competition finalist, the ARA project has five months and $300,000 from the NSF to strengthen its platform before the PAWR chooses a winning proposal to fund, joining existing research test sites in Salt Lake City, Utah; West Harlem, New York City; and the Research Triangle region in North Carolina. ARA is competing with the Nebraska Experimental Testbed of Things (NEXTT), led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A decision by PAWR is expected in early 2021. 

“The question is, can you provide solutions that can deliver capacity at a reasonable cost, a much lower cost, than what you could have in urban settings,” said Zhang. “Can you leverage advanced wireless technologies that can reach more people at a much lower cost? That’s one part of the solution. There are all sorts of communication technologies out there, [and] we want to be able to leverage them effectively.” 

Working with the city of Ames and a network of rural-based community and business partners, the ARA project is developing plans for a research center that would support rural broadband studies, technical project development and workforce training for community specialists. Industry partners could use the lab to test services and collaborate with academic researchers. 

The current specialists in these technologies are based out of universities and private businesses, but rural communities will need trained specialists to install and maintain infrastructure. 

“It’s really a regional effort,” Zhang said. “Cities, schools, companies around the state, [and] beyond the state we also have partners in Silicon Valley and other places. The hope is to really think about how we engage the whole ecosystem in this process.” 

The true solution to expanded broadband will come from a mixture of approaches, Zhang said, including ‘base stations’ that reach wide rural regions, open source hardware and software tools and widespread collaboration between telecommunication companies and the communities and farmers they serve. 

“When we think about rural broadband, we have to go beyond the traditional notion of broadband, too,” he said. “We need to be able to provide connectivity to farms which do not have any connectivity today. The future of digital and precision agriculture depends on broadband and how we provide connectivity to those places that have no signal today.” 

Individuals interested in learning more or joining the ARA project may contact Zhang or Brian Cox, who leads the ARA Consortium Working Group.