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TIRED OF TRUDGING from the shop to the office to get on the Internet, a growing cadre of farmers is using off-the-shelf wireless technology to tie computers at multiple locations into a network.

A network allows them to share an Internet connection, as well as files and printers. Typically, wireless networks span a few hundred feet to a few hundred yards, but bridging several miles is possible, too.

Hard-wired networks are another option at distances up to about 300 ft. But simplicity and relatively low cost tip the balance in favor of wireless, radio-based networks.

Setting up a wireless network is getting cheaper as technology costs fall. Today, a simple network designed primarily to share Internet access can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. A higher-speed, longer-distance network designed for file sharing could cost upwards of $1,500.

Here's a look at how three farm operations have harnessed wireless technology.

Home, shop connection

Kerry and Angela Knuth are firm believers in the value of electronic communications through computer networking, e-mail and the Internet. So when they a built a new house 2½ miles from their farm shop and office near Mead, NE, in 2002, they began scheming how to connect computers at the two locations.

They wanted the two locations to share a high-speed Internet connection and give them access to their computerized farm records. With help from Omni-Tech in Fremont, NE, they built a wireless network using off-the shelf wireless access points and antennas for a total cost of about $1,250. Today, setting up the network probably would cost about half to two-thirds that amount, because equipment costs have fallen.

The network has been effective, although the Knuths have ended up using the network for shared Internet access more than sharing computer files.

“Mainly, we use it to share the Internet connection,” Kerry says. “But files on the home computer are available from the shop computer. We also can print on the color printer at home from the shop office.”

The Knuths want to experiment with connecting a laptop computer to the wireless network from the field. This is possible, at least theoretically, because the antenna at the shop beams a signal in all directions across their farm. With a high-end wireless card on the laptop and an antenna on the tractor, they could be in business, at least on fields closest to the shop.

“I could actually be in the field and be able to connect to field plans in the home or shop computer,” Kerry says. “I also could keep in touch with prices and weather, including real-time radar.”

The Knuths are pleased with the home and shop network. To build it, Omni-Tech, a computer, networking and data services company, first verified that the Knuths' home and shop had a direct line of sight, which is necessary for microwaves in the 2.4-GHz band used in their installation. The company installed a directional high-gain dish antenna under the eaves on the Knuths' one-story home, and a multidirectional pole antenna atop the pole-style office and shop. Off-the-shelf access points, which convert digital signals to radio waves and allow signals to be encrypted, were installed between each antenna and the computers at each location. After the computers were configured with unique Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, the network was up and running.

The Internet speed at the remote office is slightly slower than the speed from the fixed wireless high-speed Internet connection. Accessing files between locations is noticeably slower than working directly on a file on the same computer. For example, opening a 1-megabyte file on the remote computer takes about 15 seconds, much longer than the fraction of a second it would take to open the file if it were on the base computer's hard drive.

Satellite service

The demands of keeping records on a sizeable hog operation and crop farm nudged Pat Hord into wireless technology. Located near Bucyrus, OH, Hord Livestock Company was outside the reach of high-speed digital cable. So Hord and his employees looked to satellite for the solution.

Today, they pay $150/month for StarBand satellite service with unlimited Internet access for 10 offices. The satellite signal is picked up by a receiver on the top of the Hord feed mill located across the road from the office building. The signal is also bounced to other locations, including Hord's home and his parents' house. Each location must have a line of sight to the feed mill and a small dish to receive the signal.

Convenience is the main reason Hord wanted to bring the service into his home. Now he can work on business programs without going to the office.

The satellite signal used to be sent wirelessly from the feed mill to the main office across the road. “We had some problems with wireless between the grain leg and the office,” Hord says. “So we ended up putting in a fiber optic line under the road.” The new line was crucial because of the high flow of data that must be downloaded from the feed mill into the business computer. The computers in Hord's business office are on a wireless network.

Hord estimates it cost about $5,000 to set up the satellite service, including $2,000 for equipment on the grain leg. “The biggest problem we have is getting people who understand how to set up the network and wireless products and then maintain them,” Hord says. “We've had this for two years and have worked with a couple different companies. At times, we felt like we were guinea pigs. We're just trying to use the technology where it makes sense for us.”

Bouncing the signal

Jeff and Gordon Smiley's farm is at the end of the rural telephone line, making dial-up Internet service painfully slow. But in an act of ingenuity, the brothers cobbled together a high-tech solution to their downloading blues and now work in the world of high-speed Internet service.

The Smileys own a crop and hog operation outside Greensburg, IN. Until a couple of years ago, they could download only the simplest pages from the Internet. They also were not networked on the farm so all records and information were stored in the main office computer. If they needed to work after hours, they had to go to the office.

The nearest high-speed cable service was eight miles from the Smiley farm. Studying the problem, the brothers learned that bouncing the signal from that site to a radio and antenna on their farm would give them high-speed service. Working with the cable company, both the farmer eight miles away and the Smileys installed a grid directional antenna on a grain leg to relay the signal between them. The Smileys put a 360° Omni antenna on their grain leg to relay the signal to their homes. Each home is equipped with a $300 radio (wireless access point) to pick up the signal.

The cost for the signal from the high-speed cable service is $55/month. Although it is higher priced than the dial-up service, an extra phone line is not needed for the Internet, and the service is superior. “We were on a 26K download and now we're running 400K,” Jeff says. Now when they click on a video clip at a Web site, the video starts in seconds. This was impossible on dial-up service.

The other big advantage of their system is the computers are all networked. When either of the brothers needs to view the farm records from his home, he can go online and get them without needing to be at the main computer.

The brothers encourage farmers to try to bounce a high-speed signal to other farms, with each user paying the company that provides the wireless service.

“If you have someone who could supply you with the high-speed service and they can see your grain leg, then you can have the service too,” Gordon says. “The farm community has the towers already built with silos and grain legs if they can get together to use it.”

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