Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Dreaming big pays off for Broadband Development Group

December 3, 2007

by Joe King

The Illinois Rural Health Network began as an idea for a fiber-optic network that would provide citizens across the northern region of the state with access to the high-tech facilities and specialists that patients in urban areas take for granted.

That was an ambitious goal, considering that the team at the NIU Broadband Development Group had a mere six weeks to pull together a detailed proposal to compete for a grant from the Federal Communications Commission.

As work began, the team realized that there was a much bigger opportunity. Why not think big? Why not create a statewide network that could bring those same advantages to hospitals and clinics in all the sparsely populated areas of the state?

Despite having only three weeks to expand the vision from regional to statewide, the group took a leap of faith and plunged ahead.

That ambition proved well placed when, on Nov. 19, the group members received the full $21.6 million they requested. It was the third-largest of 62 grants awarded by the FCC to create rural health care networks.

NIU President John Peters heralded the project as a terrific example of the university’s commitment to meeting the changing needs of the region.

“The Illinois Rural Health Network is a very visible example of what it means to be an engaged and responsive university – one that recognizes the needs of the region and the state it serves and then steps up to apply its expertise to meet those needs,” Peters said.

For Anne Kaplan, NIU vice president for Administration and Outreach, the project represented the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit that the Division of Outreach tries to bring to all of its projects.

“IRHNet is a wonderful demonstration of what you can achieve when you merge technological expertise with the spirit of engagement,” she said. “You couldn’t find a more entrepreneurial group than the team that pulled this project together, or one that has a greater sense of what is possible in a region like ours.”

It was indeed that sense of possibility that drove the group, said Alan Kraus, executive director of the Broadband Development Group.

“When we looked harder at the call for proposals, it was clear that the FCC really wanted statewide projects. We realized that there would never be a better opportunity to go after funding. We knew that the time was right and that we had the team to make it happen,” Kraus said. “We all appreciated the magnitude of this opportunity – it’s one of those rare legacy projects that will benefit people long after we are all gone, so there was a real commitment to it.”

As daunting as the task was, Kraus felt he had the team to pull it off. Every member of the BDG has decades of experience in creating communication networks, and each had a skill set critical to the development of the IRHNet proposal:

  • Doug Power. Having formerly served as the head of telecommunications for the City of Chicago, where he designed the city-wide CivicNet, Power was no stranger to working on a grand scale. He acted as the lead author of the 147-page report of the proposal, pulling together information from other members and wading through arcane requirements.
  • Roger Swenson. Earlier in his career he spent more than two decades creating networks for corporations such as Caterpillar and Inland Steel. He applied that expertise as one of the lead engineers of the IRHNet, working out the technical requirements for equipment, fiber and other aspects.
  • Rusty Winchel. As an engineer at Motorola and Sprint, he had deployed thousands of miles of fiber optics across the country. Like Swenson, Winchel helped engineer the network, immersing himself in the nuts and bolts of the project.
  • Ray Elseth. Having previously led the technological upgrade of one of Illinois’ largest school districts from zero computers to more than 4,000 networked work stations, Elseth was no stranger to complex projects. He took responsibility for mapping out the network, staying on top of an ever growing and changing list of facilities that stretched from Galena to Metropolis and dozens of points in between.

Kraus directed the team’s efforts, drawing upon more than 30 years of experience in developing large communications networks, including acting as one of the lead players in bringing cable television to the Chicago metropolitan area.

Supplementing the BDG team was Herb Kuryliw, chief network architect for NIU Information Technology Services.

“The knowledge that Herb, and his boss, Wally Czerniak (associate vice president for Information Technology Services), have developed in deploying NIUNet was absolutely critical to the success of the project,” Kraus said. “Herb brought not only technical skills that were useful in engineering the project, but he also knew all of the players across the state – network engineers at other universities, technical people at research labs – all of the people on the front lines. He was able to pick up the phone and quickly assess situations and open doors.”

When the deadline arrived, team members felt confident they had created an excellent plan and drafted a polished proposal. They had also created a remarkable coalition, recruiting three other universities and eight major health care providers from across the state as members of a group that will build and manage the network.

The success of those efforts came as little surprise to Cherilyn Murer, chair of the NIU Board of Trustees and a health care executive who recognizes the long-term benefit the network will provide.

“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,” Murer said. “Health care issues are always big complex issues, and it takes a collaborative approach like this to make a difference.”

That collaborative effort, said John Lewis, associate vice president of NIU Outreach, epitomizes the type of work that Outreach tries to do for the region.

“This is the embodiment of the culture we have been trying to develop in Outreach,” he said. “It is entrepreneurship; it is responding to market needs; it is improving the economy and the quality of life in the State of Illinois. Those were the principles that Outreach was built upon, and this is a great example of that coming to fruition.”