PAWR tackles rural broadband with new wireless testbed

The U.S. government bankrolled the creation of a fourth testbed as part of the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, this time aiming to find ways to reduce the cost of rural broadband and prove out future use cases.

PAWR’s new Agriculture and Rural Communities (ARA) Wireless Living Lab will blanket a nearly 600-square-mile area in central Iowa – including farms, schools and rural communities – with broadband coverage to enable testing of both end-to-end wireless systems and applications.

Hongwei Zhang, ARA principal investigator, said during an event announcing the new testbed its experimental network will include multi-modal, long-distance terrestrial and low-Earth orbit satellite backhaul. Access infrastructure will include software-defined, massive MIMO, mmWave and sub-7 GHz radios. Ericsson is set to provide commercial RAN gear for the project, with NI, Interdigital and Skylark also contributing.

Applications research will include exploration of artificial intelligence-enabled crop identification, precision livestock farming, agriculture automation and augmented reality use cases.

By creating a platform for experimentation with end-to-end infrastructure, Zhang said ARA will enable research that has the potential to reduce “rural broadband capex by a factor of two or more.” He added testing of infrastructure and applications can help incubate demand for future services.

“Collectively this effort will have a huge potential of making rural broadband as affordable as urban broadband today, and therefore great potential for bridging the broadband gap between rural and urban,” he said.

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Paul Challoner, VP of Network Solutions at Ericsson North America, added “it’s not just coverage or connectivity to a farmhouse or a building, it’s wide-area connectivity to a field, for example, or a whole farm so IoT use cases can be used across the whole farm environment to better automate that farm experience.”

The PAWR program is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which provided $7 million for the ARA testbed. The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture tacked $1 million on to that, with the $8 million in federal funding set to be matched by in-kind contributions from PAWR’s network of 35 industry partners.

ARA joins three other PAWR testbeds, with one each in Salt Lake City, Utah; the West Harlem neighborhood of New York City; and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina