While technically feasible for years, building a farm-wide computer-based communications network has been expensive and technologically challenging.

Until now.

Today, with a start-up hardware investment of $600 or less (and a $30 to $60/month service fee), farmers across much of the U.S. can have a wireless farm — and a wireless world, for that matter. (They also will need a computer with cellular wireless broadband capability.)

The technological breakthrough that makes this feasible has been available for years. But it is just beginning to be harnessed in agriculture, after being adopted in the oil, mining and transportation industries and in other industries that operate in remote areas.

The breakthrough? Mobile cellular antennas, plus an amplifier. Together, they boost the reach of the cellular communications network enough to provide wall-to-wall broadband coverage in many areas. Cell-phone coverage also will get a boost, with broader coverage and fewer dropped calls.

Just ask Luke Lightfoot. For the past year, Lightfoot, a technology specialist with Co-Alliance, an ag co-op with 26 branches in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, has been testing the system in an area that spans 100 miles or more. He pronounces the test a success.

“The wireless farm is already built,” he says. “You just have to pay to use the service.”

Testing, testing
When the cooperative began testing the concept of business-wide mobile Internet-based communications a year ago, it was uncertain whether coverage in the most remote part of its trade area would be good enough. After testing the system with off-the-shelf antennas and amplifiers in six trucks, the co-op concluded the antenna/amplifier combination is up to the task.

As a result, this fall the co-op plans to double or triple the number of fertilizer rigs using the technology and expand the program to its entire service area, which spans 200 miles or more.

“We are trying to take baby steps to make sure the technology fits,” Lightfoot says. “Losing coverage was pretty rare, even in the tougher areas. Once or twice, they had to move away from woods to get coverage. But overall, the trucks were pretty much always connected.”

Booster basics
To achieve the enhanced signal it needed, Co-Alliance added omnidirectional antennas and wireless bidirectional amplifiers to each of the mobile rigs in its test. Compared to directional antennas, which often are used at fixed sites, omnidirectional devices are less powerful, but they can take in signals from any direction.

Antennas serve two functions. First, they take in the signal from the cellular tower. Second, they carry the signal (typically through a cable) into the cab, offsetting the signal degradation that typically occurs inside metal structures.

The bidirectional amplifiers, which often are called cellular signal boosters, also have two functions. They amplify the incoming signal received by the antenna, and they amplify the outgoing signal broadcast from the mobile cellular device back to the cellular tower. Because the amplifiers Co-Alliance chose were wireless (and rebroadcast the cellular signal inside the cab), both cell phones and computers were able to share the benefits of a stronger signal without being direct-wired. A fully wireless system requires a second antenna, mounted inside the vehicle, to broadcast the improved signal.

According to Wilson Electronics, whose antennas and amplifiers were used in the test, the additional reach a booster package provides varies greatly, depending on terrain, atmospheric conditions and other factors.

“In a perfect environment, on very flat ground, you could go six to eight times farther away from the cell tower than if you didn't have an antenna and amplifier system,” says Sandy Warren of Wilson. “This is a huge change.”

In tougher environments, such as hilly terrain, improvements could be half that, or less. But if the booster combination can ferret out the cellular signal, users experience big improvements when they call or go online.

“One of the impacts on cell voice usage is that it reduces dropped calls and extends the range from cellular towers,” Warren says. “In the case of data cards [on computers], it enables you to maintain higher data rates. Mobile applications will run better if you have a stronger cellular signal.”

In general, by itself, a good omnidirectional antenna improves the cell signal only slightly, while the amplifier provides the biggest share of the signal bump. A typical amplifier designed to maximize mobile signals has a power rating of 2 to 3 watts, about 10 times the rating of a cell phone or data card. Specific amplifiers are designed to match the communications protocols of various cell service providers.

Dual-band amplifiers that work with all carriers also are available.

Typical wireless dual-band amplifier and antenna kits from Wilson retail for $375 to $459. For more information, contact Wilson Electronics, Dept. FIN, 3301 E. Deseret Dr., St. George, UT 84790, 800/204-4104, visit www.wilsonelectronics.com or www.free productinfo.net/fin, or circle 102.

Farm-wide communications
Lightfoot is convinced that full-time computer-based communications will become pervasive in agriculture in the future. Although the technology will enable general computer-based communications, such as e-mail and Web-based information gathering, he expects many of the benefits to accrue from automated fleet and data management capabilities (see page 37).

“This technology is going to dominate what we [agricultural retail companies] do in the future,” he says. “This is the next big thing. Being able to communicate all the time, real time, is the way we will do things.”

Farm-wide computer-based communications also may catch on with growers. A large-acreage farmer and Co-Alliance customer has been tracking results of the co-op's test. He sees potential for using the technology to track planters and sprayers in real time from his farm office, Lightfoot says.

Your experience
No one has done a comprehensive test of how well cellular booster packages handle cellular communications challenges across the U.S. If you have experience with using a cellular antenna and amplifier, please let us know how the system has worked for you. Send us an e-mail at fin@penton.com. Please use “cell booster” in the subject line.