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November 27. 2012 7:46PM

FCC-funded 'telemedicine' project connects rural health-care facilities

Rural health-care facilities in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont will soon have better access to the expertise of professionals in urban hospitals and universities throughout Northern New England, thanks to a "telemedicine" project funded by the Federal Communications Commission that has been five years in the making.

FairPoint Communications announced Tuesday it was awarded a four-year contract worth more than $16 million to boost the broadband capabilities of the New England Telehealth Consortium, a three-state network of more than 400 hospitals, behavioral health sites and community health centers.

The New England consortium received the largest award granted by the FCC under the Rural Health Care Pilot Program. NETC members will receive upgrades and improvements to their broadband capabilities and connections, while paying only 15 percent of the up-front cost.

The Rural Health Care Pilot Program was established in 2006 to create a nationwide broadband network of health-care sites, subsidized at up to 85 percent. The 400-plus health-care sites throughout Northern New England came together to apply for the program, and founded the New England Telehealth Consortium.

In late 2007, NETC was funded at $24.6 million to build a broadband health-care network, including Internet2 access and fiber optic technology, to improve the efficiency of health care in the three-state region.

Vendors providing services and equipment to build the NETC network include FairPoint, Oxford Networks, segTEL, Cogent, Internet2, Paetec, Cisco and Hughesnet. The Fairpoint contract for $16 million announced on Tuesday takes up the lion's share of the $24.6 million program.

According to Jeff Allen, executive vice president of sales for FairPoint, much of the work the company has done to upgrade Internet service for all customers will benefit the NETC program, although NETC has unique needs for speed and connectivity.

"If you're going to send X-rays and other tests back and forth from one hospital to another, the level of speed to get the quality you need is much greater than two people sending a text message back and forth," he said.

FairPoint will service a four-year agreement to connect all NETC members to data centers in Bangor, Maine, and Lebanon through dedicated carrier ethernet service, providing much faster speeds than conventional Internet. Sites that do not have fiber optic Internet connections will have them added.

The first NETC members were connected to the NETC network, "NETCloud" on Nov. 19. The president of the consortium, Brian Thibeau, chief administrative officer of Penquis, a community action agency serving four communities in central Maine, agreed to let NETC use the four Penquis locations as beta sites.

"The beta site testing is going well and the implementation team is currently working on installing 65 NETC sites that have indicated they would like an early installation," according to a consortium newsletter.

"What they really want to be able to do is connect to one and another so they can share information and do remote diagnostics and other procedures," Allen said.

Even though the program is primarily designed to help smaller health-care facilities access the expertise at larger hospitals and medical centers, the network offers benefits to all members.

"It's not just the small going to the large," Allen said. "That's one of the applications and the one that jumps out at people, especially with some of the issues that have existed in the past, where the health-care quality in the rural areas is not as good as in some of the larger locations, but it really benefits the smaller and larger facilities."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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