The New England Telehealth Consortium (NETC) has awarded a four year contract to Hughes Network Systems, to provide high-speed satellite services for mobile telehealth clinics throughout rural communities in Northern New England. According to Jim Rogers, President of ProInfoNet, the company responsible for managing NETC, the contract will allow NETC to offer mobile health trucks and a ship that serves the islands off the New England coast.
In recent years, telehealth has grown as a means of connecting rural and underserved populations to healthcare by reviving the house call and adding a modern twist. Telehealth allows patients to reach doctors through video or voice conferencing to provide diagnoses and make determinations about tests or hospital visits before patients travel for hours to reach a clinic. Telehealth is also bringing health care to homeless, migrant and other transient populations throughout the US. Telehealth also supports health data exchange and research among universities and health care providers.
NETC is one such network. The federally funded consortium of healthcare providers, serves more than 400 sites in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Its mandate is to create a shared network among rural and urban healthcare facilities, research and academic institutions, and medical specialists to improve patient care across the region. In 2007, after applying to the Rural Health Care Pilot Program (RHCPP) run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), NETC was awarded $24.6 million, the largest award under this program in the country. Since then, Rogers and other NETC officials have been working to build out a broadband network for those 400 sites.
ProInfoNet is a private, independent telecommunications consulting firm founded by Jim Rogers in 1995. Since then it has been advising public and private telecommunications projects throughout the region.
Under the contract, Hughes will supply its high-performance routers which are integrated with AvL Technologies’ auto-deploy antenna, enabling video conferencing, prescription dispensing, voice calls, transfer of Electronic Health Records, viewing of digital images, telemedicine, and digital messaging. The routers, called SPACEWAY, need a view of the southern sky in order to transmit and receive a satellite broadband signal. NETC chose this technology to manage unique challenges like bringing broadband service to outlying islands or reaching rural populations.
“We have had to build our network from the ground up,” explains Rogers in an interview with CivSource. “The network will connect over 400 sites with a redundant high speed network, some of those sites include trucks that drive out to migrant populations to provide healthcare. In that instance, we’re actually driving into a field and visiting migrants where they work. The truck has a nurse on board and will have a direct link to a doctor over broadband.” NETC also has a ship that works similarly to bring healthcare to islands off the coast of New England.
According to Rogers, NETC issued an RFP detailing the need for technology to support their trucks, and the ship, as well as outreach to rural areas. Hughes stood out from the big telcos like AT&T or Verizon, precisely because it offers mobile, satellite broadband capable of high speeds and large data transfers on the road, where the others do not.
“It’s basically a question of investment,” says Tony Bardo, assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes. “The traditional carriers prefer urban areas, where you can make tight networks, once the lots get over 1-2 acres it becomes less interesting to them. But every state has a rural area or an underserved population and we can find value there.”
Bardo notes that satellite broadband can be a viable way to deal with issues like land use rights which can impede running fiber throughout the country.
For NETC, the Rogers says it will take approximately one year to link up the existing 400 sites using satellite broadband. After that, the network will be working with stakeholders and Hughes to find ways to continue expanding the network over the remainder of the contract.
NETC may also become a model for new telehealth networks, the FCC announced earlier this month that it will be offering $400 million to support the growth and development of telehealth networks nationwide through the Commission’s new Healthcare Connect Fund. The Fund, which expands the Commission’s health care broadband initiative from pilot to program, will allow thousands of new providers across the country to share in the benefits of connectivity and dramatically cut costs for both hospitals and the Universal Service Fund.