Kerry and Angela Knuth can't imagine running their Nebraska farm without high-speed access to the Internet.

They use it to keep abreast of the markets and weather, research new farm products before purchasing, stay on top of university advice, buy office equipment and supplies, do their banking and more.

Their enthusiasm begs the question, Why aren't more farmers jumping on the high-speed information highway?

The Knuths offer part of the answer, based on a unique perspective. Until recently, in addition to farming near Mead, in eastern Nebraska, the Knuths were part owners of a company that provides high-speed Internet access.

Despite their personal enthusiasm, the Knuths say that most farmers were decidedly ho-hum about high-speed Internet when their company approached them to sign up. Most of their primarily small-town customers weren't any more enthused. Nor, reportedly, are urban dwellers across the U.S. nationwide. Where high-speed connections are available, about 10% of consumers with Internet access use a high-speed connection, far fewer than anticipated by companies selling high-speed access.

Slow dial-up connections are the culprit because they mask the value of the Internet, say the Knuths. “It's a vicious cycle,” Kerry says. “Because Web pages take so long to download at dial-up speeds, people get frustrated and give up.”

They then question the value of using the Internet and wonder why they should pay an extra $30 to $50 a month above dial-up costs for a high-speed connection.

“Until you experience the Internet with a high-speed connection, it is difficult to realize how much difference a fast connection makes,” Kerry says. “When we got somebody to sign on, they would never go back.”

Universal access

Cliff Ganschow has another explanation for the low number of farmers with high-speed Internet connections: Until fairly recently, many farmers weren't aware the service was available.

This is the case despite the fact that high-speed Internet access has been available almost everywhere in the U.S. for two years, when two-way satellite-based service came on the market. In some areas, high-speed fixed wireless or telephone-based DSL connections also have been available for two years or more.

“A year ago, our research showed that the awareness level of high-speed satellite Internet was extremely low,” says Ganschow, chairman of AgriStar Global Networks Ltd., which rolled out a nationwide program to market satellite-based high-speed Internet access to agriculture early this year. “That awareness level has expanded significantly over the past six to nine months, but there still are a lot of technologically savvy farmers who haven't become acquainted with two-way satellite delivery.”

Ganschow says that, with farmers' growing awareness of universal satellite availability, agriculture is on the cusp of adopting the Internet as a business tool to a higher degree than other industries. Because agriculture is more fragmented and more geographically dispersed than most industries, it has more to gain by using advanced communications capabilities available through the Internet, he says.

“Of all industries, I feel agriculture has the highest potential for use of the Internet as a tool to manage businesses more productively,” Ganschow says.

AgriStar's strategy is to encourage farmers to sign up for high-speed connections with special services designed specifically for agriculture. Services will include daily agricultural news and pay-per-view, multicast video seminars. Premium market, weather and other services also will be available.

“Our organization has been delivering high-end business and financial information to farmers for several decades,” says Ganschow, former president of Top Farmers of America. “Farmers subscribed to our highly specialized newsletters and drove several hours and spent several hundred dollars to attend our seminars. Now they will be able to access the same type of information and participate in seminars from their living rooms, at far less cost.”

In addition to offering services to individuals, AgriStar also will be available through farm organizations and agribusinesses. Recently, it announced an agreement with the National Corn Growers Association to provide services to NCGA members at a discount.

The base service AgriStar package costs $69.95/month, identical to the monthly charge for other satellite-based Internet services. The base service includes high-speed Internet access, up to three e-mail accounts, daily agricultural news and a free video multicast presentation. Normal retail prices for AgriStar equipment, installation and activation begin at $1,148. Special introductory prices are available for a limited time. For details, contact AgriStar, Dept. FIN, 541 N. Fairbanks Ct., Suite 1850, Chicago, IL 60611, 877/595-1200, visit www.agristar.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin.

High-speed options

Internet access is considered to be high speed if it operates above the maximum speed possible with a dial-up telephone connection, or 56 kilobits per second (kbps). In many rural areas, effective maximum dial-up speeds are in the 28- to 40-kbps range.

High-speed Internet connections generally operate in a range of 300 kbps to 3 megabits (1,000 kilobits) per second (mbps), depending on the technology and the service option. That's 10 to 100 times faster than a 33-kbps dial-up connection.

In addition to offering higher speed, these services are always connected, so you don't have to establish a connection each time you want to use the Internet or check your e-mail. And you don't have to tie up the telephone line when you use the Internet.

Here's what you can expect from the major high-speed Internet options available in rural America.

Fixed wireless

Fixed wireless services are available on a community-by-community basis. This technology uses 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) radio signals to connect subscribers within a four- to six-mile radius of a central antenna, although multiple antennas can stretch the coverage area. Fixed wireless download speeds range from 300 kbps to 3 mbps, depending on the provider and service option.

Costs generally range from $40 to $50/month for basic service, which often includes several e-mail addresses. Installation costs typically are $100 to $200, plus antenna lease or purchase costs. To qualify for fixed wireless service, there must be an unobstructed view between the central antenna and your antenna location. Recently, Prairie iNet (www.prairieinet.net), a fixed wireless provider serving 135 Iowa and Illinois communities, boosted the speed of its basic service package to 512 kbps.

Satellite

Satellite services are available to virtually anyone in the U.S. with a clear view of the southern sky. Two competing satellite services — DirecWay (www.direcway.com) and Starband (www.starband.com) — are marketed by multiple companies. Many members of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (www.nrtc.org), whose members include more than 1,000 rural utilities and affiliates in 46 states, sell both services. AgriStar uses DirecWay services. Satellite equipment and services also can be purchased through Radio Shack and other electronics stores. Download speeds average 300 to 500 kbps for basic service plans.

The typical monthly cost is about $70. A satellite dish and installation typically cost $600 to $1,100, although special offers can reduce costs. Both DirecWay and Starband also provide satellite television services, which can be purchased in a bundle with Internet access. American Farm Bureau Incorporated (www.fbsatellite.com) sells a business-grade satellite service offered by Starband's parent corporation. The base service cost is $83/month. Satellite equipment and installation are $2,499. Leasing programs to spread out equipment and installation costs are available.

Digital Subscriber Line

DSL uses the same telephone line that carries telephone service to simultaneously provide high-speed access. DSL is available primarily in urban areas because the technology works within about three miles of a telephone company switching center or central office. Some rural telephone companies in Iowa and elsewhere have installed hub-and-spoke systems that extend the DSL coverage area. Others have combined DSL and fixed wireless technologies to provide coverage to 90% or more of their service areas.

DSL download speeds typically are in the 400-kbps to 1.5-mbps range, depending on the service option. Monthly costs are $35 to $50. Equipment typically costs $150 to $225.