Home-Made Internet Networks For Use in Precision Agriculture

Rural access to internet continues to be an issue. Some producers and rural landowners have stopped waiting for service providers to show up and have built their own broadband networks.

By Deborah R. Huso

According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report from the Federal Communications Commission, 39% of rural residents in the United States lack access to internet speed that meets the de facto national standard—that’s a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. Compare that to 4% of urban residents.

Given the requirements of data-driven precision agriculture, many producers have taken matters into their own hands and have built their own high-speed internet connection. Among them is Allen Pooley who, along with his father, farms some 2,800 acres in south-central Texas.

In 2001, internet service came to San Marcos, where Pooley’s home is located. Yet, the local internet service provider (ISP) wasn’t willing to extend service out to rural areas around town, such as his farm. So, Pooley created his own network by using Wi-Fi-based radios, which he installed at his home, the farm office and on towers he had installed years earlier to set up two-way radios for his tractors and combines.

Shortly thereafter, Pooley began selling the service to his neighbors and other ranchers who were also off the local internet grid. “We sold the radios to the neighbors,” he says, “and they paid a monthly fee to us to use the internet just like they would to Time Warner or anybody else.” Pooley explains that while his customers own the radios, they are essentially paying his company for use of his towers, which relay the signal.

His company, Ranch Wireless, now has some 3,000 customers with repeating towers from Corpus Christi to Houston. Not including the price of the towers, Pooley says it cost him almost nothing to set up his own wireless internet, and he offers it to customers starting at $29.95 per month.

If you aren’t necessarily looking to set up a business that sells internet service, there are still a number of ways to access wireless if you don’t have a traditional ISP. Says Alex Phillips, CEO of RBNS.net and a board member with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association: “You can create a microwave connection on the roof of a building on your property—that’s a dedicated point-to-point microwave connection. Or you can even use a business-grade cable connection as long as you’re clear as to what you’re using it for. You don’t want to resell service without permission.”

Like Pooley, if you want to set up your own ISP business, you’ll have to buy additional equipment. Given how many rural residents live without access to an ISP, Phillips says, “There’s a lot of opportunity for an enterprising farmer.”