The landscape of downstate Illinois stretches out as flat as a tabletop. Only a smattering of silos, television antennas, and trees break a vista that was scraped flat by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. But for Prairie iNet LLC, a wireless-Internet startup, that plain geography is just perfect. Throughout rural Illinois and Iowa, Prairie iNet is marshaling the power of unobstructed radio waves and antennas mounted on grain elevators to get farmers and other rural residents online. The result: fast, cheap, and dependable Internet connections that rival those available in the biggest cities.
For years, Kent Krukewitt, an Internet devotee in Sidney, Illinois — population 1000 — struggled to get online. But his old copper-wire phone lines coughed up Web connections of about 28.8 KBPS — and that was on a really good day. Meanwhile, big telecom companies couldn't figure out how to provide cost-effective service to small communities spread across hundreds of miles.
"We were in poverty when it came to bandwidth," says Krukewitt, 50, whose family has farmed in Illinois for three generations. Ironically, Krukewitt lives just 15 miles from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign-Urbana. That's where Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen began his career in the early 1990s. At one point, Krukewitt even had a free Web account with the center. But he had to log on through a national ISP — and when the per-minute charges began to pile up, he knew he needed to find a better way.
Now he has. Thanks to Prairie iNet, Krukewitt and other residents of Sidney have access to moderately priced, always-on Internet connections of up to 512 KBPS, using what's known as a wireless rural-area network, or WRAN. The technology is cheap and easy to use. Subscribers just need a radio modem attached to their PC, a small antenna on the side of their house that receives and transmits data, and a clear line of sight to the tallest building in the area — usually a grain silo. From there, a Prairie iNet antenna and a switching tower forward the data to a tower in a nearby community, where a connection with a T-1 Internet stream is made via one of Prairie iNet's backbone antennas. All starting at just $40 a month for individual subscriptions, and $150 a month for businesses. "If you can see the silo, you can get the Internet," says Dennis Riggs, 46, one of Krukewitt's neighboring farmers and a founder of Prairie iNet.
Fast farmers such as Riggs and Krukewitt have been in search of dependable Internet connections ever since the early '90s. Why? Because farmers, despite their folksy image, are big consumers of any technology that will help them reap a bigger harvest at a better price. Riggs uses his Prairie iNet T-1 line to download real-time commodity prices. Krukewitt pulls up images of soil maps and overlays them with readings from his most recent harvest to determine what made one acre's yield more abundant than another's. Such whiz-bang stuff is certainly a help on the farm, Krukewitt says. But it's the always-on, two-way Internet communication with other farmers throughout the Midwest that has truly transformed his business. "I can get online and get a problem solved by a farmer in Iowa or Nebraska," he says.
Prairie iNet got its start almost three years ago, when Greg Olson and John Watters, two entrepreneurial engineers in northern Illinois, began playing around with radio-wave technology. Riggs heard about what they were doing and was immediately hooked. Over time, Olsen, Riggs, and Watters teamed up with three other people, including Craig Hiemstra, who had spent 10 years in marketing and sales at Monsanto Co. and had been through two startups. Together, they created Prairie iNet.
The company started up operation in Des Moines in January 2000 with a little less than $6 million in startup capital from the likes of Waitt Media and the Liberty Media Group. By April, Riggs had hooked up Krukewitt and several others in Sidney as part of a beta test. Five months later, service was rolled out across Iowa and Illinois, offering connections from 128 KBPS to 500 KBPS. By early December, Prairie iNet had WRANs in 110 communities — some with less than 50 people — and more than 1,000 subscribers.
Of course, it's the region's low population numbers that have discouraged big telecom and cable companies from making a play here. But Prairie iNet doesn't have the multimillion-dollar capital costs required to bring high-speed cable or digital subscriber lines to rural areas. The startup has managed to bag an additional $50 million in funding in the fourth quarter of 2000 to move into three more states.
State officials have been thrilled with Prairie iNet's success so far. "These days, businesses and workers want to locate anyplace they want," says Sally Pederson, Iowa's lieutenant governor. But that can be hampered by the lack of a high-tech infrastructure, she says. And Prairie iNet is going after a market segment that has been ignored — affordable rural Internet access.
Prairie iNet's founders are realistic about the threat of emerging technologies. No doubt, satellite Internet access and computers with built-in wireless applications will compete for farmers' business in the future, Riggs says. But cheap, easy satellite access is still a ways off. "We don't have some beautiful home page, and we don't have a portal," Riggs says. "Prairie iNet is like the Jeep I drive. It's practical and down-to-earth."
Contact Dennis Riggs by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Prairie iNet on the Web (www.prairieinet.net).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.