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More with less wireless

Farmers seize new communication tools to manage the complexity of larger farms.

A new sound can be detected in pickups, tractors and combines across ruralAmerica these days. Attend any field day, auction or farm meeting andyou'll pick up strains of the vaguely familiar tune there, too. Next to thenoise from the radio, the most popular sound rolling from farm equipment isthe tune of a cellular phone.

Increasingly, cell phones have become farmers' method of choice to reachspouses, implement repair shops and even irrigation equipment. Expensivetwo-way radios have become passe. Many farmers are opting for new, sleekercell phones that tuck into shirt pockets and toolboxes.

The farmers' penchant for cell phones comes at a time when the cellularindustry is exploding. In 1993, 10 million people in the U.S. were wirelesscustomers, according to the Cellular Telecommunications IndustryAssociation (CTIA). Today, wireless customers number 78 million.

The technology also has exploded. New phones and handheld computers withwireless Internet and e-mail capabilities are introduced daily. It won't belong until a farmer in a combine will use a cell phone to check markets onthe Internet while the phone receives an e-mail from his daughter incollege asking for more money.

Wireless frontier. The invisible airways that wireless devices use couldwell represent a farmer's next frontier. Farmers will need to conquer wireless technology intheir quest to manage more information and communications from farms thatgrow in size and complexity. Recording information from several thousandacres and communicating with employees and suppliers will require fast,efficient wireless methods.

If people like Bill Knight of Kansas Cellular are right, it shouldn't takemuch for farmers to adapt. "Farmers are so high-tech," he says. "They seizethe technology faster than anyone else because time is money to them. Theyhave to be ahead of the curve. They are adopting the Internet, cellularphones and paging and are utilizing wireless for remote monitoring ofdifferent devices in locations out in the field."

Part-time farmer Robert Plummer of Johnson, KS, is a prime example. He canmonitor his irrigation pivots through his digital cell phone that sits onhis desk. If a pivot stops, the phone is dialed and Plummer can see fromthe caller identification function which pivot is down.

"I can also be 300 to 400 miles away and call a sprinkler to query it," hesays. "I can tell where it is (in the field)." Through the cell phone, hecan change the speed or operation of the pivots.

Plummer works for Teeter Irrigation at Ulysses, KS, where remote irrigationmonitoring systems are sold. An average system costs $1,500 to $2,500. Cellphones have become the way to monitor these systems because many farms mayhave fields more than 30 miles away, well beyond the reach of a two-wayradio.

Another advantage of cell phones is that they can be used to call quicklyfor emergency help. North Dakota farmer Andy Fedje saved his neighbor'slife when he used his cell phone to call for emergency help. His neighborhad fallen off a tractor into a sickle, sustaining life-threateninginjuries. The neighbor survived and Fedje continues to carry his phoneeverywhere.

CTIA reports that one-third of all emergency phone calls are made from cellphones. In a business noted for potential dangers, farmers can benefit fromquick emergency help.

Access limited. In spite of the new products and technologies nowavailable, wireless services in rural America lag behind those in metroareas. A lack of access to digital service and the newer Internet servicesprevents some farmers from trying new products.Many rural areas still depend on the standard analog transmission methodfor wireless phones. Digital service opens the door to the use of personalcommunication service (PCS), which provides services such as caller ID,voice mail and Internet access.

Experts in the wireless industry say rural carriers continue to add digitalservices and many are exploring Internet access. These services may reachfarmers in the next few years.

To get you ready, Farm Industry News approached some of the majorelectronics companies to find out what innovative products are availabletoday and what's coming in the future for rural areas. We've put together asampling of some general new products as well as some productsdesignedjust for farmers.Talk and browse. Bursting from its image as a radio c ompany, Motorola hasleaped into high-tech electronics with a wealth of new cellular phones. Thecompany's latest, the i1000 Plus Phone, establishes it among thefront-runners. This palm-size digital phone includes an Internet browserwith e-mail, a mobile office with fax capabilities, a two-way radio and amessaging service that delivers voice mail or text messages through eitheran audible or vibration alert. Sound incredible? Even the price, $199, seems unbelievable. But hold on. Motorola hopes to packeven more into future phones as it works on the next generation with videocapabilities.

Unfortunately, most of rural America won't be able to fully use the i1000Plus Phone until wireless Internet services arrive. In that case, Motorolahas many other wireless options for both digital and analog phones. Formore information, contact Motorola, Dept. FIN, 1303 E. Algonquin Rd.,Schaumburg, IL 60196, 800/331-6456,

Palm computing. Palm-size devices are the hottest thing since laptops andare completely within the realm of even financially strapped farmers.Pioneering the small devices is Palm Computing. The company recently added to its line the Palm VII that accesses the Internet through wireless technology.But because only 260 metro areas will be able to use this technology by the end of the year, farmers may want to look at the Palm IIIe, without Internetcapabilities, introduced this summer.

The Palm IIIe is used with a personal computer and replaces your laptop.Information in the field is captured on the palm device and thensynchronized (or downloaded) into the computer through a cradle.Information may be captured by keying in or through a "pen" used on thescreen.

All palm-size devices come with basic programs and functions such as acalendar, date book, memo pad and to-do lists. But users can pick fromcatalogs or Web sites offering other programs like Quicken to load on thedevices. You also can purchase attachments like a modem, keyboard and GPSmonitor to increase Palm IIIe's capabilities.

The construction of the Palm IIIe is sturdier than that of earlier models,making it more reliable for farm work. And at $229 it is the lowest-pricedpalm device that the company offers. For more information, contact PalmComputing Inc., Dept. FIN, 5400 Bayfront Plaza, Santa Clara, CA 95052,408/326-9000,

Dial and compute. If you need a palm organizer with a cell phone, Qualcomhas just what you want. In a deal with Palm Computing, the companydeveloped the pdQ Smartphone, which combines a Palm III organizer with acell phone. And for you folks in rural areas, the phone will come in analogand digital. The new Smartphone should be commercially available this fallfor a retail price of from $600 to $900, depending on the carrier. Like thepalm devices, the pdQ can be put into a cradle to synchronize your computerwith any information entered into it.

For the less adventurous, Qualcom offers the new QCP-860 Thin Phone forboth digital and analog service. A new built-in battery makes this phoneboth thin (__2/3 in.) and lightweight (4 oz.). The battery supports 2_1/2hrs. of talk and 3 to 4 days of standby time. An external battery may beclipped on, even during a conversation, to support 10 hrs. of talk and 8days of standby time. This thin phone sells for $80 to $150, depending onthe carrier. For more information, contact Qualcom, Dept. FIN, 6455 LuskBlvd., San Diego, CA 92121, 619/587-1121,

Finnish technology. Believe it or not, the popular Nokia brand cell phonedoes not come from Japan, but from Finland. This hot company and productline dominate the European market where cell phone usage well exceeds thatin the U.S. And you can join them. A look at the company's Web site showsthat Nokia products are available for most rural U.S. wireless carriers.

One of the newest lines is Nokia's 6100 series. This sleek digital phonewith PCS extends its coverage to analog cellular systems. This lineincludes a phone directory for about 200 names and numbers, an alarm clock,calendar, calculator, games and an internal modem for PC data/faxapplications. A couple of models offer a silent vibration alert to use whenyou're out in public and you don't want the phone to ring. Price range: $59to $149, depending on model and service carrier.

Nokia's Web site lets you check what phone models are compatible withdifferent cellular service providers. For more information, contact Nokia,Dept. FIN, 6200 Courtney Campbell Causeway, Suite 900, Tampa, FL 33607,888/665-4228,

There's more. If some of these new products capture your fancy, you maywant to check out the many other companies that offer a selection ofcellular products. Contact your local cellular service providers for phonesor other products that work with your plan.

If you want to try some of the new digital technology but don't know how orwhere to start, here's some help:

* Roughly 300 wireless service providers in the U.S. belong tothe Cellular Telecommuni-cations Industry Association (CTIA). The group'sWeb site gives consumer advice on choosing a phone and a service. It alsoanswers questions about other concerns, such as whether cell phone useinterferes with pacemaker performance.

* A consumer group called the Telecommunications Research &Action Center (TRAC) is devoted to helping consumers make informeddecisions about the telecommunications business. Consumer reports and issueguides are available. Contact TRAC, Dept. FIN, Box 27279, Washington, DC20005, 202/263-2950.

Todd Peterson, manager of emerging technologies for Pioneer Hi-BredInternational, offers other pointers. He believes farmers should tryexperimenting with a few new technologies just to feel more comfortablewith wireless electronics.

Make an Internet purchase. If you have a computer, get on the Internet."It's a source of information that farmers must get used to," Petersonexplains. However, you don't have to go far on the Internet to get someexperience.

"Make some travel reservations. Or buy a book from or clothesfrom Just try doing business over the Internet. You dip yourtoes in these things and it leads to more understanding.'renot a part of this technology."

Try GPS. "I think every farmer should have experience with a GPS receiver,"Peterson says. "Go buy a $100 to $250 model from Wal-Mart for personal useif nothing else. But start getting used to that technology."

Today's GPS models are vastly cheaper and more user-friendly than the firstones introduced in 1992. Peterson recalls that those receivers cost $20,000and were "user vicious."

Use a yield monitor. Peterson works extensively with precision farming andadvocates yield monitors. He says farmers need to try technologies, such asa monitor, that provide information for decision making. Try other aids,such as a computer program, to help determine herbicide needs. Petersonbelieves that someone will develop a complete computer program for makingdecisions about crops. And, he says, if a farmer is not familiar with thebasics of the technology, "it will be too close to magic to believe."

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