Aug 17 2021

NSF, USDA to Help Build Rural Broadband Testing Site in Iowa

The National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture are providing funds for an experimental broadband project.

The Senate’s recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $65 billion in funding to make broadband more accessible and affordable in rural areas and low-income communities.

According to a White House fact sheet released earlier this year, more than 30 million Americans live in areas “where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.” The bill defines broadband as 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20Mbps for uploads.

While the House considers the bill, other efforts to explore how best to expand access to broadband in rural areas are underway, including via support from the federal government. Recently, the National Science Foundation announced the launch of a wireless broadband testbed in Ames, Iowa, in partnership with researchers at Iowa State University and private sector partners.

Under the agreement, the NSF’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research, or PAWR, a public-private partnership that includes a consortium of 35 leading wireless companies, will create a “living lab” in Ames, across the university and in nearby farms and rural communities. The test bed will be used to experiment with 5G wireless network technology.

The NSF is contributing $7 million to the project via the PAWR program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is contributing $1 million in funding.

Test Bed in Iowa Will Help Explore 5G in Rural Areas

According to the NSF, the project, formally called ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities, is designed to complement the technical specialties of earlier PAWR testing platforms.

According MeriTalk, the test bed will include collaboration between researchers at the university and students, as well as among “state, community, and industry partners like the Iowa Communications Network, Iowa Department of Transportation, Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System, Iowa Regional Utilities Association, city of Ames, local school districts, Meskwaki Tribal Nation, Woodland Farms, and U.S. Cellular.”

“In addition to a wide range of wireless technology, it creates a deeply programmable infrastructure including services that directly benefit precision agriculture in both crop and livestock farms,” the NSF noted in a statement.

As StateScoop reports, the living lab will create a “blanket” of experimental broadband coverage across nearly 600 square miles of central Iowa.

The lab will experiment with wireless signals beamed from low-Earth-orbit satellites, and will also explore how 5G and high-speed wireless broadband can “enhance crop yields by connecting drones, automated machinery and environmental sensors to farmers’ mobile devices,” StateScoop notes.

Paul Challoner, a vice president for Ericsson North America, one of the site’s industry partners, said during the project’s announcement that the test bed will provide a “unique” opportunity to research 5G use cases, according to StateScoop. Those include identifying plants and weeds using cloud-based analysis of high-resolution video and attaching Internet of Things sensors to farming equipment to track its condition.

“This is a powerful partnership between NIFA, USDA’s extramural funding agency, and NSF to foster an important step for improving the quality of life in rural America,” NIFA Director Carrie Castille said in a statement. “Transferring high-speed broadband solutions to rural communities that so badly need them will positively impact businesses, agriculture, healthcare, education, and all aspects of rural life, helping build the local economy.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr, Creative Commons

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