Iowa Public Television


Prairie iNet

posted on May 2, 2001

"Letting the rural markets go" is not encouraging news to those in the country who need to conduct business over the Internet.

From marketing grains, comparison shopping for crop and field chemicals, sending or downloading large documents, such as maps or other graphics – high-speed, broadband Internet service can save time and money.

But parts of Rural America are not being totally ignored. Industry analysts say there are as many as a dozen companies actually bringing that high-speed connection to the country.

One such company, as Producer Nancy Crowfoot found last winter, is continuing to dig an impressive market foothold in the Midwest.


Along the main business district of Sidney, Illinois – population 1,000 – is a number of odd looking attachments to, and near, shops. The same equipment can also be seen on some homes in town … and surrounding farmsteads.

The antennas all point to the nearest high spot in the road – the local grain elevator -- or more appropriately, to the antenna and transmitter on top of the elevator.

It's part of a high speed, broadband, wireless relay system that connects rural home and office computers … to the Internet.

The wireless system was developed by six partners with roots in rural Illinois and Iowa. They were tired of the slow Internet connections over older phone lines that didn't have the speed or capacity to transmit large documents.

Dennis Riggs is General Manager of the Illinois branch of Prairie iNet. He is a self-proclaimed computer geek … who also farms in eastern Illinois.

Dennis Riggs, Illinois General Manager, Priarie iNet, Sidney, Illinois: "I set on my farm, just 20 miles out of Champaign-Urbana with a dial-up connection that was costing me by the minute to use and slow enough that I really couldn't utilize any of the nice things on the internet.

And I decided its time to do something different."

"Something different" to Riggs, meant hooking up with two men who had built 15 towers in Illinois and utilized radio frequencies to provide a wireless connection to the Internet.

Dennis Riggs, Illinois Manager, Prairie iNet:

"Quite frankly, it's not rocket science but it's kind of close. And its not where just anybody can put up the tower and put up the radios and make it happen."

With an initial $5 (M) million dollar investment, they formed Prairie iNet. They built a centralized computer center in West Des Moines, Iowa. And they installed antennas to serve 110 communities in Iowa and Illinois.

Kent Krukewitt, farmer, Homer, Illinois: "we're running at 323.8 and DSL ‘s 384. On our telephone modem we were not even at 28.8."

One of the first customers was Homer, Illinois farmer Kent Krukewitt.

For an initial cost of up to $600, and a monthly fee of $40 for a residential customer, Prairie iNet installs software and attaches a radio modem to a user's computer. The modem is wired to an antenna mounted outside the home and in the necessary "line of site" of a relay tower.

The information Kent Krukewitt sends and receives is translated into radio signals … and transmitted over unlicensed radio frequencies. Krukewitt says while he is happy with the system, the technology is not perfect.

Kent Krukewitt, Homer, Illinois: " There can be some problems with the transmission, just like any other radio technology. There can be conflicts with other radio transmitters.

But when one compares to the alternative, of what we had before, that this is, this a great leap forward."

Krukewitt … and other rural business operators, like artists Keith and Deana Clayton … say high speed, broadband Internet service is not just an amenity they want because the Urban "Jones'" have it.

They say the Internet is becoming an important tool to conduct business. The Clayton's former, dial-up Internet provider couldn't quickly transmit the large photo files of their glasswork. But now with wireless access running at speeds four to eight times faster than their phone modem, Keith Clayton says, he is "relentless" with the Internet -- in selling his product to potential private customers and art galleries.

Keith Clayton, artist, Sidney, Illinois:

"Now I'm able to actually do a voice mail with it, so they open that attachment, click on, and its me talking about the piece. And you know, it doesn't get any better than that, yet."

Industry analysts who watch the wireless market agree. A New York technology research and consulting firm says through wireless, companies like Prairie iNet can cover a wide area and scale it to demand.

Andy Fuertes, Allied Business Intelligence, Oyster Bay, New York:

"I think it's a smart thing to do because its economical. It brings a service the customer wants. It brings it at a low cost. And it can bring it quickly and that's critical as well.And as such, somebody like Prairie iNet could get a pay back on their investment within a period of period of a year to 2 years."

Officials at the one-year old Prairie iNet say they do plan to cash flow by mid year 2002. Meanwhile, the plan is for continued growth. Last fall, the company recruited a large equity partner, which along with additional individual investments … brought in the equivalent of $50 (M) million dollars. With that shot in the arm, Prairie iNet plans to soon expand its service to 400 communities in parts of Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska.

To facilitate the expansion, the company plans to hire nearly 90 additional employees.

The rapid expansion and cash outlay may sound similar to stories of dot.coms that rode an economic crest and crashed. But Prairie iNet president Craig Hiemstra is confident the company will survive.

Craig Hiemstra, President, Prairie iNet, West Des Moines, Iowa:

"We had a proven model. I mean we actually had something that was tangible, working that had customers on.

With a cost of about $125,000 to set up towers in each community, Prairie iNet says it needs 75 to 100 customers to break even. Actively selling their service since just last October, they have signed up 25% of the needed subscribers.

So, they promote their service through education. They travel to towns in their high-tech school bus they affectionately call a "COW" – for computer on wheels.

Dennis in field w/laptop calls up radio program: "Welcome to Commodity Week. I'm Charles Lindy."

And they can demonstrate how their wireless service is mobile … if within a six-mile, line of site of a tower.

It is a technology the company boasts that brings the "fast lane" to Main Street ...with a goal, they add, to build out to the "last gravel mile."

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: Internet news rural technology