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Farmers Go High-Tech: Cultivating Crops and Wireless Customers, Too!

When you think of a farm, do you still envision tire swings, corn, and Mayberry? Find out how rural America is changing and stepping onto the information highway.
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A little less than three years ago, Dennis Riggs (one of six founders of Prairie iNet) had an "aha" moment. Riding in a truck on his way to lunch with neighboring farmers John Watters and Greg Olson, Riggs was urged to try reaching the Internet on a "souped-up" laptop sitting in the back seat. Amazingly, Riggs discovered that he could surf the Internet while riding along a dirt road near Sydney, Illinois at 50 miles per hour.

Collectively, the farmers began to wonder if this could be a way to transmit data (in particular, commodity prices, a critical tool for crop growers) to rural areas much like a two-way radio can transmit voice-over-FM or "wireless radio." They surmised that by using the unlicensed spectrum to transmit radio frequencies, remote communities that are inaccessible to cable lines and costly T1 connections could be brought online.

Although five of the six founders—Greg Olson, John Watters, Neil Mulholland, Randy Ramundt, and Dennis Riggs—are Illinois and Iowa farmers of several generations, Watters and Olson had been long-time "garage" tinkerers. Craig Heimstra, a veteran of two high-tech start-ups and a long-time executive at Monsanto, later joined the group.

Even though located within miles of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign-Urbana (one of the major hubs for the Internet and Internet2), access to these facilities for the average consumer are prohibitively expensive. Thus, Watters and Olson continued to refine their RF antennas built from scratch. Similar to an LMDS network, they prefer to call their self-built technology network by the acronym WRAN: Wireless Rural Area Network.

With $5 million in seed capital secured from Waitt Media and Liberty Media, Prairie iNet launched on April 10, 2000 with direct line-of-sight transmitters placed on top of grain elevators—often the tallest buildings in the region. The Midwestern geography, with its flat plains naturally stretching for miles and miles, allowed the signals to reach small towns that have been anxious to connect to the information superhighway. Riggs, general manager of Prairie iNet, says, "We'd like to think that we were the first to bring the Internet to the hinterland."

Not for Farmers Only

Indeed, Pairie iNet, a pioneer in bringing wireless technology to underserved communities, has spawned a number of followers, including Rural Internet Access in Minnesota and Cascade Networks in the Pacific Northwest. Brian Magnuson, president and CEO of Cascade Networks, notes that the need for broadband access to the Internet is not just for farmers. More than three-quarters of his clients have diverse businesses such as law offices and insurance brokerages. According to Magnuson, "These days, the way business is done has changed so much. Lawyers no longer receive yearly volumes of text, but must download updates on a frequent basis. Likewise, insurance brokers submit requests for quotes not by telephone or fax, but through the Internet. With the size of these data files, these businesses can't function without broadband access."

Operating in the Pacific Northwest, notorious for its foggy days and rainy nights, I wondered about the impact of weather conditions. Magnuson cited the robust nature of wireless equipment acquired from Motorola as the reason for such smooth sailing. After testing many other products, Magnuson notes the ability to cover as much area as possible, regardless of the weather conditions, as one of the most important attributes of the Canopy product line. While line-of-sight technology still has it drawbacks, Magnuson predicts, "Within two years, there will be a good flow of non-line-of-sight products on the market; and in five years, the ability to reach anyone within the access perimeter will be available."

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