High-speed wireless in rural areas

We're in Alan Northcutt's van, driving around Carlisle, Ark. 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.”

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