Published on 11/07/05

Farmers can benefit as rural Georgia goes wireless

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Using a wireless Internet connection inside a south Georgia conference room, farmer Wade Mitchell checked the environmental conditions of his grain bins in Iowa. That's just one way wireless technology has made his farm more efficient.

"It's hard to inspect and keep track of all the things you need," Mitchell said at the University of Georgia's "UnWired '05: Rural Wireless Conference" in Tifton, Ga., Nov. 2.

Mitchell's 2,500-acre, fifth-generation corn and soybean farm is covered by a wireless network with high-speed Internet access. He and his son Clay use it to auto-steer tractors, monitor fields and instantly get weather reports, spray recommendations, etc.

The Mitchells' network has helped them cut chemical usage by 20 percent and make crop sprays 30 percent more efficient.

Wireless technology, Mitchell said, "has turned our tractor cabs into mobile offices. It has saved us hugely in labor and time and allowed us to be more accurate in our operation."

Craig Kvien, chair of the UGA National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory in Tifton, said there is "little doubt that wireless technology will have a profound impact on agriculture."

Most farmers now can handle sophisticated equipment but freeze up when it comes to computers, said Paul Mask, assistant director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. "But the tools we'll need in the future," he said, "are the tools we're talking about here today."

John Helm of Vivato, a company that makes high-powered wireless equipment, said wireless connectivity will enable rural areas to compete globally. His firm has helped cities and small towns wirelessly connect emergency services and law enforcement employees.

Hard wire, or fiber, is still the best for reliable service, said Donovan Adkisson with CityNet in Tifton. But it isn't economical in some rural areas, costing $25,000 per mile. His company plans to run fiber as much as they can and then use wireless technology to connect rural residents by early next year.

Having the potential for wireless access, however, doesn't mean you can get it. Wireless signals can shoot over valleys or get stopped by hills or tall pine trees, said John Mascoe, chief executive officer of VanCoe Environmental. VanCoe is creating a 100-square-mile wireless network in Calhoun County in rural southwest Georgia.

Rural areas, Mascoe said, "need an infrastructure of multi-use 300-foot towers to hold wireless equipment. Height is your friend. That would cure any coverage problems."

The conference was sponsored by UGA, the Georgia Center of Innovation for Agriculture and the Tifton/Tift County Chamber of Commerce.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.