New network will expand 'telemedicine' through N.H., Vermont and Maine
Nov 28, 2012 (The Telegraph - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The phrase "information superhighway" might be wildly outdated, but it's a pretty good description of a new private broadband network that could connect all the hospitals and health care clinics in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Called the New England Telehealth Consortium or NETC (net-see), the network began beta testing with three Maine clinics last week and should go live the first week of December. The network was largely funded by $24 million from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Health Care Pilot Program. That award, given several years ago, is the largest given out under this program.
"We said, 'Let's go really big. Let's not just say we'll tie three hospitals together -- let's tie every hospital, every clinic, in three states, whether rural, urban,' " said Jim Rogers, president of ProInfoNet of Bangor, Maine, the company that designed the network and will manage it.
The NETC network will be private with speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second to any health care facility in the three states that signs up covering 85 percent of its costs. Members of the consortium have not been announced, but it is open to places as large as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and as small as remote, one-doctor clinics.
More than 400 locations are eligible, and about three-quarters of all clinics and hospitals in the three states have signed up, Rogers said.
This will allow everything from exchange of medical records to remote-control surgery, depending on the speeds of the connection they buy. It also will provide access to the Internet and the higher-speed academic network known as Internet2.
"NETC is the roads, this is not the data. It's I-95. It's the highway system, but not the trucks and the cars that are going on the roads," Rogers said. "Everybody knows how they're going to use it. They've been anxious for us to get it going. These hospital systems know what they're going to use this network for."
News of the network went public Tuesday when FairPoint Communications announced it had been awarded a four-year contract, with three two-year extensions, to create the network. The contract is worth more than $16 million.
"A lot of the investment has already been made because we've been building out the network. In some instances, we'll have to add additional investment to bring the fiber directly to a customer site," said Jeff Allen, vice president of sales for FairPoint. The company has spent an estimated $190 million in recent years to create a fiber network throughout its service area, which covers all three states.
So-called telemedicine is often seen as a relatively inexpensive way to spread medical treatment to rural and under-served areas, allowing specialists in one place to easily "see" patients who are far away.
The advent of systems like DaVinci Robotic Surgery, in which a physician operates on a patient via mechanical arms and cameras, can even allow surgery to be performed by somebody who is many miles away, as long as the data connection is fast enough.
"This will allow voice, video and images all together, on the network, among multiple locations -- the quality is like a DVD Blu-ray," Rogers said.
The most common use of the NETC network is likely to be in sharing of medical records and information, which are slowly being digitized. The need for privacy and security in handling health information complicates such networks, and partly explains why NETC is an separate, independent system.
Rogers said NETC will have redundant sets of core routers to handle the network, one in Bangor and one in Lebanon each with dedicated connections.
Rogers said customers can buys speeds as low as those equivalent to a T1 line, about 1.5 megabits per second, up to so-called gigabit Ethernet.
David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua telegraph.com. Follow Brooks' blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).
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