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BRINGING YOUR CUSTOMERS UP TO SPEED
The convenience of high-speed Internet access is something most businesspeople take for granted - it's in our offices, our homes, even our hotels when we travel. So it's just a natural assumption that our customers have it too, right?

For businesses serving producers and rural residents, that answer may be "Not yet." Research shows producers are accessing the Internet at greater numbers than ever before, with 2003 data indicating 48 percent of producers have some form of Internet access.

But producers lag behind the rest of the nation in high-speed Internet access, whether that means cable, DSL or satellite connections. According to the Pew Internet Study, just 10 percent of rural residents have broadband connections at home, compared to 28 percent of those living in suburban or urban areas.

While urban residents and businesses have multiple options for broadband Internet access, rural communities have faced challenges in adoption due to outdated infrastructure, fewer providers and a lack of knowledge about access options. To reach out to this audience, agrimarketers must be aware of these challenges and the solutions that exist.

USDA REACHES OUT

One of the biggest obstacles to broadband adoption in rural areas is an inability or unwillingness of small towns and communities to invest in an aging telecommunications infrastructure.

To assist these rural communities, in 2003, USDA Rural Development introduced the Rural Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, designed to increase the use of broadband technology in communities with populations up to 20,000. Since then, Rural Development has approved $659 million in loans and loan guarantees to these communities. The loans or guarantees provide for the cost of construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment for broadcast services.

"This critical infrastructure will provide rural citizens with an improved quality of life and give rural businesses the opportunity to be a part of the global digital economy," says Agriculture Acting Under Secretary for Rural Development Gilbert Gonzalez.

ACCESS FOR ALL

On the other hand, rural residents do not necessarily have to wait for this funding to reach their local communities. With the advances in satellite technology, companies such as Agristar Global Networks Ltd. (AGN), Chicago, Ill., are also helping to bridge the "digital divide."

The biggest challenge AGN and companies like it face is a lack of awareness. "Discussions regarding rural broadband availability usually begin with the premise that local infrastructure is needed in order to deliver broadband access," says Kip Pendleton, president of AGN. "And since a broadband Internet infrastructure does not exist in most rural areas, the myth is perpetuated that broadband access is not available."

With Agristar Global Network's technology, all that is required to deliver a high-speed connection is a satellite dish and a modem. With the equipment in place, subscribers are able to access the Internet at any time, at a much faster rate than dial-up connections. "AGN's satellite broadband access has download speeds that are 50 times faster than most rural dial-up systems, and our customers like the feature of the always-on connection, which allows anyone in the U.S. to use the Internet very efficiently," Pendleton says.

AGN is working closely with a number of agrimarketers, including Royster Clark, Northrup King, MFA and Helena, to supply for their customers and dealers. To further target the needs of rural residents, Agristar Global Network packages broadband access with special content for producers, such as commodity quotes, ag-related news, weather and other features.

With a slightly different variation, SpeedNet, Omaha, Neb., is also working to increase broadband adoption in rural areas. Rather than a satellite, SpeedNet technology relies on radio frequencies to transmit data between a tower in the community and a receiver at the home or business. SpeedNet towers are currently available in areas throughout the Midwest, and the company is continually expanding its service areas.

THE SPEED OF CHANGE

Studies have also shown that broadband users do not just access the Internet more frequently - they actually use it differently than dial-up users. With "always-on" access and a high rate of transfer, broadband users participate in more variety of online activities, whether it's research, purchasing an item, communicating with others or downloading content.

If the key to marketing is knowing your customers, then it's becoming just as important to understand how they use technology such as broadband. And whether it's DSL or satellite, marketers need to be aware of what it's going to take to bring rural America up to speed. AM


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