Farm Internet

Grain bins and a wireless tower atop a grain dryer mark the skyline at the Croslin farm in Franklin County. Such sights are becoming more and more common among the rural landscape.

Nat Williams, The Southern News Services

WEST FRANKFORT — It’s no wonder Shane Croslin has a strong internet signal at his Franklin County farm: A wireless tower is attached to his grain dryer.

Croslin’s farm is one of hundreds of spots throughout rural Illinois that have towers on existing structures that provide high-speed broadband service. More and more rural areas are finding success with a fixed wireless option.

Such a system involves an antenna on the outside of a house or building and a cable that runs inside the home. A wireless router provides service throughout the property.

Increasingly, rural residents have access to quality internet. One reason is the emergence of companies such as Wisper Internet, with headquarters in O’Fallon.

“Illinois is an interesting state,” said Nathan Stooke, Wisper’s founder and chief executive officer. “It’s fairly well-covered with wireless. The northern part is very flat and doesn’t have a lot of trees. It’s a lot easier for us to provide service.

“Down in Southern Illinois, you start to get into trees and rolling hills. That’s where it becomes more challenging to provide service.

“We have towers on one-story houses, on grain elevators, whatever we can do to get as close as we can to the customer to provide them service they need. We use the farmer’s grain elevator to provide service to him and his neighbors. It works really, really well. It keeps costs down.”

It’s a winning system. Those who allow the installation of towers on their property usually receive free or upgraded internet service. Their neighbors get good signals for a lot less than they paid for inferior dial-up.

Wisper has grown from Stooke’s garage, where he was helping a rural neighbor get a good signal, to a provider spanning a wide circle in Illinois and Missouri. The company now has 11,500 customers served through 350 towers. He prefers having towers an average of 6 miles apart.

“We used to go farther — about 15 miles,” he said. “But the more bandwidth you need, the closer you need to be because the better signal you need. Instead of our towers getting farther and farther apart, they’ve actually gone the other way, which is the same thing with cell phones.

“People think their cell phone technology is getting better. Well, it has, but they’re putting a tower up every other block instead of a tower every other town.”

In general, broadband coverage across Illinois is good.

“There’s virtually nobody in the state who doesn’t have access to broadband,” said Robert Taylor of Partnership for a Connected Illinois. “The question is, do they have multiple choices? Do they have the speed or the throughput they want? And ultimately, what is the price of it?”

Grants from federal stimulus funds given to organizations such as PCI for mapping and improving broadband service have expired. The non-profit now focuses on medical applications.

“When you’re looking at transmitting large data files like MRIs, speed and throughput is critical,” Davis said. “In this stage, we’re looking to get people to advocate for using telehealth and other aspects.”

Agriculture is experiencing increasing need for high-speed internet. The embrace of technology encompassing everything from planting to marketing requires fast downloads. Stooke even credits improved broadband coverage with keeping some families on the farm.

“We get comments from the older farmers, such as their son and daughter-in-law will stay farming now because they can get high-speed internet,” he said. “Or they’re willing to move into the house down the road so that they can still be together as a family because they can get high-speed internet.

“Before, they would get as far from that farm as possible because they just couldn’t get good internet. There’s another generation coming up. They’re used to being connected at school, and they don’t want to come back and not be connected. It’s no longer a luxury; you have to have it.”

Stooke said that in some ways, wireless service is superior when it is far from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan areas.

“We actually perform better in the rural market than we do in the urban market,” he said. “With the urban market, there’s a lot of wireless interference. Everybody has a wireless router. Whereas in a rural area, your house isn’t in the middle of 100 other houses. It tends to work a lot better.”

There is also better reception of a different kind in the country.

“When we walk into a large municipality, a lot of times we don’t get the warm fuzzies,” Stooke said. “They don’t want you on the water tower, or whatever, because they feel the majority of their customers have options.

“When we go into the rural community, they appreciate us. It’s kind of become the lifeblood.”

Indeed, surveys have shown that the second-highest concern of people looking to buy a new house is whether high-speed Internet is available there or not.

Increasingly, it is, even on the farm.

Nat Williams writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a sister Lee Enterprises publication of The Southern Illinoisan.

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