Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs


News Release

Contact: Alan Kraus, Broadband Development Group
(815) 753-8945

November 28, 2007

NIU-led group announces statewide
broadband network to improve rural health care

Naperville, Ill. — A coalition of universities and rural health care providers from across Illinois announced today that it will create a fiber-optic point-to-point wireless communications network that will revolutionize delivery of health care in rural areas of the state.

The group, known as the Illinois Rural HealthNet Coalition, will be led by Northern Illinois University.

Illinois

The Illinois Rural HealthNet will be built using a $21 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission. It will extend from Galena in the north to Metropolis in the south, serving 80 small towns and a few larger communities such as Geneva, Rockford and DeKalb. It initially will include 85 hospitals and clinics, but can be expanded as needed. Participants in the northern half of the state should come online within 18 months with the rest to be tied in within three years.

When fully operational, the network will enable participating hospitals and clinics to dramatically expand the menu of medical services they offer. It will open the door to significantly improved emergency care, create opportunities for doctors to consult other physicians hundreds of miles away and give patients access to specialists around the state without ever leaving their hometowns. It will enable improved diagnostics in areas such as radiology, neurology, cardiology and pre-natal services.

“Illinois Rural HealthNet is a great example of how public universities can make a difference beyond their campuses, in the lives of all our citizens,” said health care executive Cherilyn Murer, who also serves as chair of NIU’s board of trustees. “Health care issues are always big, complex issues, and it takes a collaborative approach like this to make a difference.” 

IRHNet is nothing less than “a dream come true” for hospitals in rural and medically underserved areas of the state, said Roger Holloway, president of the Illinois Rural Health Association.

“This will be a godsend for rural Illinois. The opportunity to improve access to health care services through technology is something we have talked about a lot, and this project will make that a reality for many areas across the state. We are eagerly looking forward to the day when this comes online,” Holloway said.

Officials at the Illinois Hospital Association, which includes more than 200 hospitals statewide, echoed Holloway’s excitement at the announcement.

“It is critical for our small and rural hospitals to have access to the technology they need to deliver high quality care,” said Lori Williams, vice president of Small and Rural Hospital Affairs for the Illinois Hospital Association. “We look forward to working with NIU on developing this network.”

NIU’s Division of Outreach brings to the endeavor considerable experience in the design and operation of large fiber-optic networks and in forming partnerships with hospitals, school districts, municipalities and private companies to build networks in a cost-effective manner.

“I am very excited that NIU is able to combine the expertise we have developed in the creation of high-speed communications networks with the medical expertise of the other members of the consortium for the betterment of health care across Illinois,” said NIU President John G. Peters.

NIU’s Broadband Development Group, a university department that specializes in planning, implementing and optimizing broadband connectivity projects for municipalities and other large organizations, first conceived of the idea for the network.

“We had long been aware of the potential for broadband connectivity to improve access to medical services in remote areas,” said Alan Kraus, director of the Broadband Development Group. “And when the FCC put out a call for proposals, we realized that it created an opportunity to address the issue on a grand scale.”

Working with the NIU Division of Outreach, the Broadband Development Group quickly drew up a plan for IRHNet and recruited health care institutions and universities from across the state to join in the project.

When the FCC announced Monday, Nov. 19, that it was funding 69 projects to jump-start its Rural Health Care Pilot Program (at a total cost of $417 million), the IRHNet proposal received the third-largest grant in the country. The money for all of those projects will come from the Universal Service Fund, a fee collected from long-distance and wireless subscribers that subsidizes phone and Internet service to schools and libraries as well as to low-income populations and rural areas.

Walter Czerniak, associate vice president for technology services at NIU, said the network will be built utilizing existing fiber-optic lines wherever possible with new fiber to be installed where necessary and economically feasible. In areas where laying fiber would be prohibitively expensive, equipment that transmits data via radio waves will be used.

With money for the project in hand, the IRHNet consortium already is turning its attention to the details associated with construction of the network and to establishing protocols and procedures. That last detail is no small matter.

“Creation of this huge network allows us to tackle those issues in a very significant way. It will enable us to develop statewide standards for equipment, for software and for protocols on how information can be shared. It is a huge step forward in that process,” Kraus said.

For more information, look on the World Wide Web at illinoisruralhealthnet.org/.

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