New radio and satellite systems offer high-speed options for rural Internet users.

It's been called the "great digital divide." The gulf between the high-speed Internet access haves and have-nots has been getting wider, with the growing access of cable connections and digital subscriber lines (DSL) in urban areas. These "wire-based" systems are bringing always-on convenience and amazing speed to Internet users in cities around the country.

The key words here are "in cities." Unless you live in town, or your farm is within 3 1/2 miles of a central telephone company office, you probably can't hook on to these super-fast links to the online world.

But in the last few months, several speedy new options have popped onto the market for Internet-dependent computer users who are farmlandlocked. They all fall into the category of wireless access, using one of two main types of technologies: microwave (line-of-sight) systems using radio waves and antennas, and satellite systems, similar to the TV dishes of recent years. Both cut the cord on slow dial-up, telephone line access, providing communicating speeds up to 10 times faster, while freeing up your phone line.

In the last few months, several new companies have quickly rolled out their rural services to get ahead of the growing field of competitors for your Internet service dollars. Here's a look at the most recent product and network launches that will be providing service in the Midwest.

A fit for the flatlands "Fixed wireless" systems are finding a home on the plains and prairies. They rely on land-based radio towers built at least 100 ft. in the air to transmit FM signals to repeater towers within 16 to 25 miles of each other, then out to personal house- or office-mounted antennas within a 6-mile radius. Fixed wireless systems deliver speeds comparable to current cable and DSL connections and are available in different speed levels, or bandwidths.

For example, in September, West Des Moines-based Prairie iNet began offering four different service levels, with speeds ranging from 128 to 512 kilobits/sec. (kbps). Continuing its prairie theme, the company has named these levels Prairie Breeze, Prairie Lightning, Prairie Thunder and Prairie Storm. "Even at our entry-level rate of 128 kbps, you'll still be seeing speeds that are five to seven times faster than with a dial-up connection," says Dennis Riggs, a company founder and Illinois farmer.

To receive the signal, your farm has to be within 6 miles of a tower and the antenna on your home needs to have a straight, unobstructed view of it. The company currently has towers in 47 communities in central Iowa and 63 communities in northeastern Illinois, and expects to add another 100 locations in Iowa and another 300 elsewhere in the Midwest in the coming year. (See the company's Web site at www.prairieinet.net for service availability.)

As with other fixed wireless systems on the market, Prairie iNet sells a complete hardware/software package, which includes a compact antenna that mounts on your roof, a cable that connects the antenna to your computer, an adapter card that's installed in your machine, and software. Package price is around $400, plus another $200 for installation, although you may find introductory offers for less. Access charges start at less than $40/month. For more information, contact Prairie iNet, Dept. FIN, 4601 Westown Pkwy., Suite 325, West Des Moines, IA 50266, 515/440-0849 or circle 200.

Prices are similar for another new fixed wireless provider, ORA2.net, based in Omaha, NE, although the company expects those prices to drop a bit in certain areas as more businesses and individuals sign on. Established a year and a half ago, the company has focused on developing a tower network to provide more rural residents with high-speed Internet access. It is currently developing an area of coverage along the I-80 corridor in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. (See its Web site at www.ORA2.net for service availability.)

Both wireless companies are working with partner businesses or individuals in their target geographies that own the town's tallest structures on which to mount repeater towers. "We work with quite a few cooperatives, since grain elevators are a logical high point to transmit our signal from," says James Noe, operating officer and CEO of ORA2.net.

"Basically, we're selling bandwidth," says Noe, who describes the term as an invisible pipeline that transfers information. And that bandwidth isn't free. Service providers like ORA2.net buy it from carriers, many of which are major players in the communications industry, such as Sprint and AT&T. ORA2.net is trying to work with carriers to continue building the necessary infrastructure of transmitting towers to blanket Nebraska and Iowa, and eventually the Midwest. For more information, contact ORA2.net, Dept. FIN, Box 662, Boystown, NE 98010, 402/345-8188 or circle 201.

Wireless network on the farm Noe sees many applications for wireless technologies beyond Internet access. "Wireless offers expandability. You could add a Web camera that's mounted in the barn to monitor livestock, or connect your irrigation system to control pivots from your computer. Or it could be used to allow you to send your yield information directly from the monitor in your combine to your computer back in the office," Noe explains. "It's the perfect way to network several different types of functions on a farm. And you can more easily upgrade this system for less cost."

Some farmers, like Angela and Kerry Knuth, are already starting to weave wireless communications into their operations. The Knuths, who farm 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans outside of Mead, NE, are linking their irrigation pivots into their office computer via their wireless system. "Right now, we can monitor our pivots by phone, but we'll be able to more quickly get information about them by looking on our computer screen," Angela says.

The Knuths also are linking their handheld personal data assistant to the ORA2.net wireless system to input information in the field, which then automatically is sent to their office computer. "We're just getting up and running with GPS and this will be an important part of that system from the beginning," Angela says.

Despite all the functional possibilities of wireless, the promise of super speed and easier Internet access is what attracted the Knuths. And they haven't been disappointed. "It is just so much faster than our old dial-up connection," Angela says. "You don't even have time to get up and get a cup of coffee while downloading a Web site."

Aside from speed, one of the biggest benefits of a fixed wireless service is that it frees up your phone line, Angela notes.

The Knuths have been so impressed with the performance of their wireless "connection" that they are working with ORA2.net, ag software developer Farmworks and a local hardware expert to assemble a complete wireless package for the farm. Their newly formed company, called E-Farm, hopes to have something on the market sometime next year.

Other companies are offering similar wireless systems, including Netbeam (www.netbeam.net), a Colorado-based company installing microwave Internet service in the Rocky Mountain states, and KDS Internet (www.kdsi.net), with operations out of Columbus and Grand Island, NE. Even Sprint and AT&T promise to offer some type of wireless Internet access in the coming months; both companies are currently running tests in limited areas around the country.

Eyes on the skies For those in hill country, where a line-of-sight wireless system won't work, a higher option may soon be available. Satellite packages for speedier Internet access are already available, and a new generation of more consumer-oriented, lower-cost systems is due out any day.

StarBand Communications, formerly known as Gilat-to-Home, will be first to the market with a two-way, satellite-delivered Internet service, and the company has no doubt benefited from the connections of one of its major investors - Microsoft. StarBand has been field testing its new consumer service and will bring it to the market later this month. Available at Radio Shack stores, it will be sold in a package that includes a Compaq computer equipped for satellite access. If you're not looking to buy a computer, the company will also offer an add-on package, with external modem, that will be available from EchoStar's Dish Network.

The StarBand system consists of a 24- x 36-in. satellite dish that can be mounted on your roof, chimney or a pole in the yard and must have a clear, unobstructed view of the southern sky. Two standard coaxial cables connect the dish to your computer.

StarBand's satellite dish is also capable of receiving EchoStar's Dish Network 500-channel television programming. So if you're already outfitted with one, upgrading to include Internet access will simply require swapping the StarBand dish with the existing EchoStar dish and running two additional cables from the antenna to your computer.

Price of the PC/satellite dish package was not available at press time. The monthly Internet Service Provider (ISP) charges probably will run a bit higher than the rates of other wireless systems, although the company claims it is trying to make them competitive. For more information, contact StarBand Communications, Dept. FIN, 1651 Old Meadow Rd., McLean, VA 22102, 703/245-6410 or circle 202.

Pegasus Communications (www.pgtv.com) worked with Hughes Network Systems to roll out their Direct PC satellite-based Internet access package several months ago. The main difference between it and the StarBand system is that the Direct PC version lets you use satellite speed to pull down Web pages, but requires a dial-up phone connection for sending information. So it's not truly wireless. Other companies with similar systems already on the market include InfoDish (www.infodish.com) and PC Connection (www.pcconnection.com).

Another company working to get a similar product into the consumer market in 2001 is iSKY of Denver, CO (www.isky.com).

With a slightly more sophisticated system designed more for business Internet use, San Diego-based Tachyon (www.tachyon.com) is one of the only satellite companies targeting agricultural end users. The company has a relationship with mPower superscript 3, Greeley, CO, to provide the ag expertise and an entry point into the industry. A division of ConAgra, mPower superscript 3 (mpower3.com) supplies agricultural businesses with field information technology services.

"Currently the cost of the Tachyon service is more realistic for a business than for an individual," says mPower superscript 3 President Scott Charbo. The monthly charge is around $600 for a leased dish and ISP. "But once we figure out how to spread bandwidth across more users, the cost is likely to come down," he adds.

He predicts that, eventually, a rural network will develop that combines both satellites and towers. "A hybrid system would offer the best of both technologies," he states. "And the growing competition in this business is only going to be good for farmers in gaining them access to better technology at a lower price."

For more information, contact Tachyon, Dept. FIN, 5808 Pacific Center Blvd., San Diego, CA 92121, 877/589-3278 or circle 203.

Pros v FM offers a clearer signal than dial-up phone line access.

v Fast connection speeds: 128 to 700 kilobits/sec. (kbps)

v Always-on connection

v Connection is rarely affected by weather.

Cons v System is limited to flat terrain with no obstructions between antenna and transmitting tower.

v User has to be within range of transmitting or repeater tower.

Pros v The service is available throughout the country from its first launch date.

v Fast connection speeds: 150 to 400 kbps

v Always-on connection

Cons v Initial investment and monthly charge are potentially higher.

v Early satellite packages still require phone line for communicating to the Internet.