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Iowa State University and partners receive major National Science Foundation research grant to drive innovation in rural broadband connectivity

Posted Jun 22, 2021

The Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program announces Iowa State University and its partners as the fourth testbed in a diverse portfolio of large-scale research platforms located throughout the United States. Designated as ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities, the new platform in central Iowa complements the technical specialties of earlier PAWR platforms, adding a focus on technologies for rural broadband connectivity.

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. 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.”

“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 Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen. “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.”

With the launch of this rural broadband platform, ARA joins PAWR testbeds including: POWDER-RENEW in Salt Lake City, Utah; COSMOS in the West Harlem neighborhood of New York City; and AERPAW in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. The PAWR program is designed to accelerate the development and commercialization of promising technologies and applications, ensuring continued U.S. leadership in wireless communications while also preparing the emerging workforce for new job opportunities in the digital economy.

ARA Platform Details

ARA is based out of Iowa State University with a team that will work in close collaboration with state, community, and industry partners. Select partners include Iowa Communications Network (ICN), Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT), Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System (ISICS), Iowa Regional Utilities Association (IRUA), Iowa Communications Alliance, the city of AmesStory County, local school districts, the Meskwaki tribal nation, Woodland Farms, U.S. CellularCollins Aerospace, and John Deere. Researchers from the University of California – Irvine, The Ohio State University and International Computer Science Institute are also key members of the project team.

The ARA testbed will produce a heterogeneous network environment featuring a wide range of wireless technologies. For backhaul connectivity, ARA will create a multi-modal, high-capacity wireless mesh network including low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite links, a free-space optical (FSOC) platform, and long-distance millimeter wave (mmWave) and microwave point-to-point communications. In the radio access network (RAN), ARA will employ low-UHF massive MIMO (mMIMO) and other platforms to enable research across multiple frequencies including the TV white space (TVWS) band, CBRS band, and several others.

The ARA platform will feature software defined radios (SDRs) and programmable off-the-shelf equipment. This virtualized and programmable network will support research in areas such as bandwidth aggregation, channel bonding, dynamic and spectrum sharing; as well as resilient, high-throughput, and long-distance wireless backhaul and access; which are expected to lay the foundation for more affordable rural broadband service.

To learn more about ARA, visit

For more information on the PAWR program, visit

About the National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.