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High-speed Internet for rural areas

CARLISLE, Ark -- We're in Alan Northcutt's van, driving around. His console-mounted laptop computer is displaying an in-motion radar map of an approaching weather system.

He pulls to the side of the street, punches in a Web address, and he's getting up-to-the-second commodity prices. A minute later, he's reading the latest edition of Farm Press Daily.

All at lightning fast broadband speed.

A small, inconspicuous wafer antenna atop the van is connecting the laptop with an antenna atop a local grain elevator, which in turn sends to and receives signals from a Little Rock communications center.

While being able to surf the Web from one's vehicle has a certain gee-whiz quotient, the technology that makes it possible has a very practical application in providing high-speed Internet and communications services to growing numbers of farmers, businesses, and residents of this east central Arkansas area.

Since July 2000, Northcutt's company, Light Speed Net, has been providing wireless broadband service to increasingly larger areas of the region.

"In many rural areas, Internet service is pretty much limited to dial-up access over residential or business telephone lines," he says. "Download speed is around 2 kBps (kiloBytes per second) to 3.5 kBps per second, which is agonizingly slow.

"TV cable — even if it were available out on the farm — is only 35 kBps to 50 kBps, and telephone DSL (digital subscriber line), where it's available, can vary from 20 kBps range to 50 kBps. Speed for cable and DSL can drop if a lot of people are using it at the same time, and DSL speed slows appreciably the farther you get from the central telephone office.

"With 802.11b wireless technology, our customers are routinely experiencing download speeds in the triple digits — unlike cable or DSL, upload and download speeds are the same. And a customer 10 miles away has just as much speed as one across the street from my office."

From his original installation in Carlisle, Northcutt has added Stuttgart, North Little Rock, Lonoke, Hazen, Des Arc, and Dewitt, and soon will be operational in England and Gillette.

"It's an easy sell," he says. "I tell a potential customer, 'I've got a service you can't live without — you just don't know it yet.' Once I open my laptop and show them what can be done, the reaction is, 'I've got to have it.' Once they use it for a month, they wonder how they ever got by with dial-up.

"Farmers love it. Everyone told me they wouldn't, that it would be too technical for them. But technology is nothing new to today's farmers, who are using GPS equipment, computers, combine monitors, cell phones, satellite systems. They grasp this concept with no problem."

While a number of farm operations are using satellite systems for market/weather information and Internet access, Northcutt says latency in a satellite signal (delays caused by cycling of the signal from the farmer's dish to the satellite) can make fast-moving operations such as commodity trading virtually impossible.

"Weather affects the satellite signal, too; even though it may be a perfectly clear day at your location, clouds elsewhere in the link may interfere with the signal. That's not a problem with wireless."

In addition to providing high-speed Internet services to farm offices and homes, he says, more farmers now have laptops in their pickups so they can monitor markets, weather, and e-mail while moving around their farms.

They also want to be connected elsewhere, Northcutt says. "When Farmer Jones and his business friends go to Five Oaks Duck Lodge at Dewitt, Ark., they can turn on their laptops and immediately be in touch with the world, at broadband speed."

A small transceiver unit, which can be located in a closet or storage room, provides the access for a computer equipped with a radio card (the same "Wi-Fi" technology makes wireless Internet access available to laptop users in major airports).

Northcutt's east central Arkansas area "couldn't be more ideal for wireless technology," he says. "It's flat countryside, with little obstruction to signals, and there are a lot of tall grain elevators and water tanks where we can mount our antennas."

The Carlisle antenna is perched 183 feet above ground on the Stratton Seed Co. grain elevator. Many farms have two-way radio towers on which a wireless antenna can be mounted.

"We get the GPS coordinates for a location," Northcutt says, "and our engineer calculates the path and determines the antenna height necessary to receive the signal. Once that's done, it takes a couple of hours to install the equipment and get things up and running."

If there are fewer than four computers at a location, it's cheaper to put them on a wired network, he notes. If over five, it's more efficient to use a wireless network.

Hal Hillman, who is division manager of Winrock Farms' approximately 18,000-acre operation in the Carlisle area, says the service "is something we couldn't do without." He uses it for access to markets, banking transactions between Carlisle and Petit Jean, where Winrock's headquarters are located, and other management functions.

In Dallas, where he was previously located, Hillman says high-speed Internet access was taken for granted. "When I was getting ready to move back here, one of the first things I needed to know was: Can I get that level of service in Carlisle, Ark.? Fortunately, I could."

All the computers in Winrock's offices operate off a small transceiver tucked away in a closet, as do meeting room systems that are set up for video conferencing.

A number of farm supply businesses use his service to communicate with stores/offices in other locations. In many cases, he says, it's possible to eliminate some phone lines, adding greater cost efficiency.

He's also working with Kids-Tel, which provides Internet-based content for school systems.

"With dial-up, there just isn't adequate bandwidth for that kind of operation. We're working on a plan that would give the students tablet PCs, operating off a wireless network, so they'd be able to use them anywhere in the school and have broadband access. For less money than they're currently spending, they'd have high-speed wireless service."

For most of the past three years, Northcutt says, he's worked with a staff of two — "a technician and me — with some assistance from my father-in-law, Ron Hill." Now, there's a total of six. "I'm grateful for the support my parents, my wife Tammy, and her parents have given me in pursuing something that I was told couldn't be done."

Northcutt plans to keep expanding his wireless coverage area. "There's a definite need for this service. It's cost-effective for the user, and front-end equipment costs continue to come down — they've probably dropped 40 percent in the last year."

He's also concentrating more on market penetration, adding more customers in the areas served.

e-mail: [email protected]

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