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Iowa State Gets $16M Investment for Broadband Research

The university joined others in New York, Utah and North Carolina as part of the National Science Foundation's research of new wireless devices, protocols and applications to improve broadband connectivity.

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(TNS) — Iowa became home Tuesday to the National Science Foundation's fourth and final wireless research platform, thanks to a $16 million investment in Iowa State University-led research aimed at achieving universal and affordable rural broadband.

ISU joins New York City, Salt Lake City and North Carolina State University as a research platform host for the NSF-backed "Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research" program, a $100 million public-private partnership designed to speed "development and commercialization of promising technologies and applications."

The ISU-based platform has been labeled, "ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities," and complements the other platforms by adding a focus on technologies to improve rural broadband connectivity.

ARA will serve as a "wireless living lab" encompassing the ISU campus, city of Ames, nearby farms and rural communities across Central Iowa. Partners include Collins Aerospace, John Deere, U.S. Cellular, the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Meskwaki tribal nation and school districts. Researchers from the University of California-Irvine, Ohio State University and International Computer Science Institute also are involved.

The NSF is putting $7 million toward the ISU-based research to compel rural broadband connectivity innovation; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture is providing another $1 million; and partners are providing a matching $8 million.

"When we first launched the PAWR program in 2016, we had a vision of bringing together the public and private sectors to truly revolutionize our nation's wireless innovation ecosystem," Margaret Martonosi, NSF assistant director for computer and information science and engineering, said Tuesday during a virtual announcement.

The program sought to catalyze developments of new wireless devices, protocols and applications to enhance broadband connectivity nationally. It aspired to ensure researchers have the tools to experiment "in the wild," Martonosi said.

"ARA is the fourth PAWR platform, and it specifically seeks novel solutions to reduce the cost and improve the availability of rural broadband, benefiting many underserved communities across the country," she said.

The research comes at a crucial time — given that COVID-19 demanded unprecedented levels of virtual connectivity.

"This past year, we have seen firsthand the challenges of unconnected communities during the COVID-19 pandemic," Martonosi said. "Rural communities across our nation have struggled with access to education, telehealth services, telework opportunities, just to name a few."

Noting digital divides exist in all 50 states, Martonosi highlighted Linn County — reporting 15 percent of its households lack broadband access.

"The average broadband costs in Linn County are higher ... compared to more densely populated areas where the same amount of broadband equipment can cover more customers and thereby lower costs," she said. "So we need new solutions."

The ARA platform will focus its research on a variety of applications including precision livestock and crop farming, agriculture automation and augmented reality-based agriculture education. ISU's Hongwei Zhang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the ARA project.

In a statement, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen highlighted the research platform's aim to lay the foundation for more accessible and affordable rural broadband service.

"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," Wintersteen said. "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."

Broadband access

New findings out of BroadbandNow Research reveal connectivity is even sparser than believed. Countering federal reports that the number of Americans lacking broadband access improved from more than 21 million to 14.5 million in 2020, the research firm reports its detailed investigation found "42 million Americans lack access to terrestrial broadband internet."

Researchers' state-by-state breakdown found 387,344 Iowans are without broadband — about three times the Federal Communications Commission estimate of 127,000, according to the new BroadbandNow report.

That number means about 12 percent of Iowans are without access — far more than the FCC-projected 4 percent. While more rural than many states, Iowa sits near the middle in the percentage of population with access.

Researchers found West Virginia has the lowest percent with broadband access — at just under half. They found about 60 percent in Mississippi have access; 67 percent in Arkansas have access; and 71 percent in Vermont do.

States with the highest percent reporting broadband access are largely-urban states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island at 97 percent; Maryland and Delaware at 96 percent; and New York at 93 percent.

©2021 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.