By Luke Jones - 12/12/2011
Copyright © 2011, Arkansas Business Limited Partnership. All Rights Reserved.
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There's a huge technological development in Arkansas, and it's happening right under our feet.
Last week, Arkansas Business reported on CDI Contractor's role in the $128 million Arkansas e-Link project. The project, funded by a $102 million federal stimulus grant and matched with $26.6 million of the University of Arkansas for Medical Science's money, is intended to benefit research, academia, health care and emergency preparedness.
The goal of the initiative is huge: connecting all of the state's four-year and two-year colleges, as well as 474 hospitals, to a 5,600-mile high-speed optical network. Mixed in are establishing public computer terminals and research stations in various locations across the network.
It's been about a year since the project kicked off, and the wheels are rolling steadily toward the project's completion deadline of August 2013.
UAMS brought in the Arkansas Research & Education Optical Network (ARE-ON) - an economic development initiative owned by state higher education institutions - to handle about $43 million of the project, including contracting existing but unused ("dark") fiber and figuring out where to put new lines.
ARE-ON, according to Executive Director Mike Abbiatti, predates the e-Link project by several years, and its presence was a big factor in UAMS winning the $128 million grant. It has already successfully connected all but one of the state's four-year universities (South Arkansas University at Magnolia is still being worked on), and is now focused on the two-year colleges.
"We competed with all other states, but the Arkansas model, the Arkansas story was significant enough that the feds were willing to invest $102 million in it," Abbiatti said.
He said that when the project is fully realized, students in two-year colleges will "have access to all the resources of the four-year network," he said. "Foreign language programs, webinars - they'll have access to libraries, be able to connect with the four-year campuses, gain college credits, the list continues longer, as you can imagine."
The network reaches speeds that easily surpass normal broadband, but Abbiatti said ARE-ON doesn't compete with commercial Internet service providers.
"Everyone needs to understand that," he said. "It only serves research and education purposes."
Meanwhile, progress has been a bit slower for the $22 million tele-health network.
"We will be connecting to all the hospitals within the state, providing broadband and interactive video equipment," said Debbie Green, director of the UAMS Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. "Also, we'll have multiple clinics, health departments, local health units and mental health services."
Green said the project, on a surface level, will put $24 million back into the state economy just from broadband providers. But the main benefit, Green said, is the infrastructure created by the network, bringing unprecedented medical convenience.
For example, a new, efficient drug can be given to a patient diagnosed with a stroke. But the drug must be delivered within a certain time to be effective. With the tele-health network in place, communication between patient and doctors will become instantaneous.
"And there's a very big benefit to patients out of state or in rural areas who cannot really travel into Little Rock," Green said. "It allows them to stay in their home environment and be given expert care."
Since breaking ground, the tele-health network has deployed about 100 community anchor stations to be used for both health-related and general research, as well as job searches.
But the optical network itself, Green said, hasn't quite yet gotten off the ground.
"We got approval in June," she said. "We're getting in high gear. We have bids for equipment, and we're now evaluating bids for broadband."
The federal deadline presents a challenge, said Abbiatti at ARE-ON, but he felt the vision will drive everyone to perfection.
"There are other states that have telemedicine programs," he said. "But this will be the premier telemedicine program. And there are others for research and education. But if you went out today, would you find something else that looks like this, that functions likes this? I don't think so. We're very proud of the unique nature of what we're doing here."