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The Rover report

Maybe it’s just all the thinking time you have while you’re in the tractor cab, but it seems as if the urge to sell grain often strikes you when you’re doing fieldwork.

To see if prices have reached your desired level, you flick on the radio for market news. Unfortunately, a ballgame delays the market report. So you sit and wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Isn’t there a better way?

Enter the DTN Rover. This service gives instant access to daily agricultural news, market quotes and weather in your truck, combine or tractor. The Rover downloads information via cell phone into a Palm Pilot.

"This type of information is your agricultural survival guide," says Mike Moore, DTN Rover product manager, Omaha, NE. "It gives you the bare-bones information that lets you know what the market is doing when you aren’t close to a radio or a DTN monitor. Users receive an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the information that they need."

To see how the Rover actually performs under field conditions, we asked Chuck Myers, a Team FIN member from Lyons, NE, to test it earlier this spring. Despite some difficulties, Myers says the Rover has potential.

"The up-to-the minute information I can access conveniently with the Rover from any location at any time is what I want for the future," Myers says.

Starting out. DTN sent Myers a Rover package that included a color Palm Pilot IIIc, a Tellular Converter (plugs between the cell phone hand set and base), a Palm Modem (plugs into the bottom of the Palm Pilot), a notebook-size carrying case, a Palm cradle for recharging and hooking up to a computer, a 9v battery charger, and two 2.9v batteries for the Tellular Converter.

Because his cellular bag phone powers the Tellular Converter, Myers did not need the battery charger or 2.9v batteries. DTN had already entered a working user name and password for Myers, along with the toll-free phone number to make the Rover download connection.

Myers then entered his zip code, which the Rover uses to download local weather and cash prices. He also chose the commodity and stock prices he wanted to download. The range runs the gamut from row crop cash prices to pork bellies to the S&P 500.

"The information available for download with the Rover is great," Myers says. "Of course, it isn’t nearly as in-depth as the information DTN can provide through its traditional service or over the Internet, but it is the essential information a farmer needs to help make important marketing decisions. You don’t have to wait for the market report on the radio, or quit fieldwork in order to drive home and check the markets. You can get the information in the field, where your time can be worth hundreds of dollars an hour."

Bugs. As Myers tinkered with the Rover, he observed several bugs in the system. Several commodities that he chose to download never surfaced. Meanwhile, the prices of some markets — such as lumber and the S&P 500 — popped up, even when Myers did not choose them.

Downloading cash prices at multiple sites also sapped time and patience. Myers tracked local cash prices at three Nebraska cities in his area — Oakland, Fremont and Blair. To call up Fremont prices, he had to enter that city’s zip code and then connect to DTN for downloading. To review another cash price, Myers had to reenter his zip code to do another download.

Frequent downloading took its toll on Myers’ cellular phone bill. To cut phone time, Myers downloaded just local corn and soybean cash prices, the local weather forecast and news. These downloads took just two to six minutes to complete.

"This took much less time than trying to download all my preferences each time I connected," Myers says.

Look Ma, both hands! Myers says that the Rover can be awkward to use inside the tractor cab because use requires two hands: one hand to hold the hardware and another one to operate it.

"This was an inconvenience if I was operating the tractor and wanted to keep moving while the Rover downloaded information," Myers says. "Sometimes I would lay the Rover on the tractor console and try to operate it with one hand, but that didn't work very well. I think some sort of bracket or pedestal would be very helpful."

DTN officials currently are searching for such a bracket. "We used a bracket in one of our advertisements," Moore says. "You wouldn’t believe how many people saw it and wanted a bracket like that. We’re pursuing finding such a bracket that customers could put in their pickup or tractor cab, but we haven’t run across any such retailers."

Myers says the system’s cables created a rats’ nest of inconvenience. "When using my cell phone, the extra cables connected to the phone make it somewhat awkward to use," he says. "The Tellular Converter hangs between the hand set and the cradle, and when I'm ready to hang up, I have to push cables out of the way to get the hand set back into the cradle. A more compact setup with one-hand accessibility would be highly desirable."

Myers adds that the Palm color screen is difficult to see under field conditions. "The brightness of the screen is adjustable, but out in the field, it's just plain hard to see," he says. "Back in the office, the color screen is very nice to view. I wonder if the black-and-white screen that's available might be better to use in the field."

Cell-bound. Myers found that strong cellular telephone connections are vital for successful Rover operation. Because Myers lives 20 miles from three cell telephone towers in his area, he resides in the outer reception radius. Thus, his cell phone often runs on a signal of one-half to two-thirds strength.

That’s sufficient for cell phone conversation. However, the weak signal caused nearly one-half of his attempted DTN connections to fail. Of the successful connections that Myers made, another 50% failed during download. This was despite his use of a 3W bag cellular phone, which DTN officials recommend. During a failed download, Myers’ Palm Pilot would lock up. He would then have go through a lengthy procedure to reset the Palm.

"The failed downloads could occur as I traveled across a field and the cell signal strength changed, or even as I sat still in one spot, depending on the signal strength," Myers says. "To make the Rover work in the field, I would watch the cell phone for a strong signal and then stop until I could complete a download. If I couldn't get a strong enough signal, sometimes I could drive to a hilltop to get an unobstructed signal. When I took the Rover with me in the pickup, and got close enough to a tower for a full-strength signal, the Rover worked every time." As digital cellular phones replace analog ones, more digital towers may be constructed and help link farmers now having connection problems, Moore explains. "But for now, the best solution we can offer is to use a three-watt bag phone," he says.

Still a supporter. Despite difficulties, Myers believes in the Rover concept. "As we move more and more toward wireless technology, I have no doubt that DTN is on the right track with the Rover," Myers says. "But with the current signal strength and connection problems I’m having, I can’t see signing up for one now. However, if the connection and download problems are overcome so the Rover works every time, regardless of location, I’ll reconsider. When I’m busy in the field from dawn till dusk and beyond, that DTN screen in the office doesn’t do me much good."

To use the Rover, all you need is a cell phone and Palm Pilot equipped with DTN Rover software. Monthly service with Internet access is $19.95. Farmers without existing Internet service can buy 100 minutes of monthly DTN Rover use for $24.95, or 200 minutes for $29.95 per month. For more information, contact DTN, 9110 W. Dodge Rd., Suite 200, Omaha, NE 68114, 800/511-0095.

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