Wireless Living Lab: At-scale, real-world broadband testbed for connected rural communities

Iowa State is building a wireless “living lab” in central Iowa, laying the foundation for more affordable rural broadband service.

The project will create a research testbed for a wide range of wireless technologies across Iowa State’s campus, the city of Ames and surrounding farms and rural communities in central Iowa – with an application focus on precision agriculture as well as on rural education.

“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 a coverage area of hundreds of square miles of rural communities, the ARA Wireless Living Lab serves as an at-scale, real-world infrastructure for rural wireless research.

Hongwei Zhang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, leads the project.

“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.”

The ARA Living Lab includes unique wireless platforms such as low-UHF massive MIMO and mmWave wireless access, as well as long-distance free-space optical backhaul and low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite communications. ARA employs both software-defined-radio (SDR) and programmable commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms, effectively leveraging open-source wireless software platforms such as OpenAirInterface, srsRAN and SD-RAN. 

Funding includes $7 million from the National Science Foundation and $1 million from United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The funding will be augmented by in-kind contributions from the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) Industry Consortium to match the federal investment. 

State, community and industry partners

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 Ames, Story County, local school districts, the Meskwaki Nation, Woodland Farms, U.S. Cellular, Collins Aerospace, and John Deere. Researchers from the University of California – Irvine, Ohio State University and International Computer Science Institute are also key members of the project team.

Hongwei Zhang
Hongwei Zhang,
professor of electrical and computer engineering