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Iowa State University Launches Rural Broadband Research

Hongwei Zhang with some of his antennas on the roof of the ISU Research Park building.
Christopher Gannon
Iowa State University
Hongwei Zhang with some of his antennas on the roof of the ISU Research Park building.

Iowa State University will work with three central Iowa counties to create a laboratory to research and test technologies to boost rural broadband connectivity.

ISU will lead wireless tech research to advance rural broadband with the help of $16 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, a matching investment and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The university will research and test wireless technology to better link communities, farms and schools in Story, Boone and Marshall counties.

During a formal launch of the project Monday, Iowa Deputy Agriculture Secretary Julie Kenney said reliable high speed internet is a necessary communications tool, not a luxury.

“And all homes, schools and businesses need broadband access to support telemedicine, distance learning, work from home arrangements and even entertainment and streaming services, especially to our rural communities,” Kenney said.

Kenney said the project is a way to attract new businesses and boost the workforce in rural areas. She said high quality, high speed internet is a “game changer” for them.

“When rural communities are connected, they hold a competitive advantage over others who lack this 21st century infrastructure,” Kenney said.

Hongwei Zhang, an electrical and computer engineering professor, is leading the project. In an interview with IPR, he said one of the goals is to ensure farmers have better connectivity to the machines they operate. More advanced machines incorporate a lot of technology, he said.

“They have hundreds of computers, controllers and sensors,” Zhang said. “They need to be connected to the cloud, computing to each other, so they can actually perform those essential tasks.”

Zhang said one observation he's made is rural communities and industries don’t often have the right technology that works for them. “We have some technology options today, but they may not be the optimal solution,” Zhang said. “We need to actually go beyond existing technologies. That's the main purpose for this.”

Zhang said researchers will be deploying the technology over the next three years. He added the hope is to deploy it in other rural areas of Iowa after it’s developed and matured.

The project is the fourth test site within the Platforms for Advanced Research program, which researches and explores wireless technologies and communication techniques. Other testbeds are in Salt Lake City, New York City and North Carolina.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.