ISU’s ARA launches new era in rural broadband research

Hongwei Zhang and other researchers installed hardware at the Iowa State University’s Research Park for CyNet, an advanced wireless networking system that’s a predecessor to the new ARA rural broadband project.

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A $16 million rural broadband research project will cover nearly 40 miles of rural communities and farmland, researchers told state and industry representatives at Monday’s launch of the ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities.

Led by Iowa State University researchers, ARA is a five-year project implemented in two phases: infrastructure development, and how communities apply the technology.

ARA is the fourth research program funded by the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR). At least $8 million in financial support has been committed from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and PAWR industry consortium partners will add cash and in-kind contributions to ARA through the program’s lifetime, according to PAWR.

“There’s a dire need for us to impact those communities. Silicon Valley is not prioritizing our problems,” Hongwei Zhang, ISU professor and lead researcher on ARA, told the crowd at ISU’s Student Innovation Center on Monday afternoon.

Ten representatives from the state of Iowa and private industry also spoke during Monday’s project launch, including ISU President Wendy Wintersteen, state of Iowa Chief Information Officer Annette Dunn and state Rep. Randy Feenstra.

Agriculture “has moved from field-level to acre-level management, and we need to be at plant-level management,” said Todd Signer, global director of crop care platform engineering at John Deere.

The project will eventually work with more than 15 partners in academia, industry and local governments, including the Iowa Communications Network, the Meskwaki Tribal Nation and researchers from the International Computer Science Institute.

Previous coverage: ISU-led project named national finalist with proposal for rural broadband research lab

In the first three years, ARA will deploy hardware to sites in Ames, Nevada, State Center, McCallsburg, Woodland Crop and Turkey Producer Farms, Gilbert, Boone, and the ISU BioCentury Research Farm.

ARA’s programmable infrastructure will include a mix of wireless platforms in development and those already commercially available, such as low-earth-orbit satellite communications, software-defined radio and open-source wireless software platforms such as OpenAirInterface. The infrastructure will be built in two layers: a long-distance mesh extending broadband capacity over several miles, and one layer with more regionalized technology to reinforce broadband on-site.

After the first phase of creating a network of physical infrastructure across the region, ARA will spend two years studying how those structures can support applications such as extended reality, streaming and other cases in agriculture and public services. The plan will eventually call for the development of a Center for Wireless Communications and Innovation to continue studying the applications of a stable rural broadband network.

“Iowa has many industries that can drive this design and early-stage customization. [That] does bring us this first-in-the-world advantage, and more importantly enables us to view this innovation as a community,” Zhang said.

ARA is expected to have two active sites deployed by the end of the year, although that time frame may be affected by shipping delays in the COVID-19 pandemic’s aftermath, Zhang said.

“The early part of the infrastructure will be ready as early as this year, even though the full scale will not be complete until three years later,” Zhang told the Business Record.

Through PAWR, ARA received $7 million from the National Science Foundation and an additional $1 million in financial support from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. ARA joins PAWR test sites in Salt Lake City, the West Harlem neighborhood of New York City and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina.