Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Researchers and engineers at MCNC are not waiting for the completion of the $130 million-plus expansion of the N.C. Research and Education Network to upgrade how the statewide network can be used.

Running on a fiber backbone, the new version of NCREN offers the potential to be a superhighway from Manteo to Murphy.

On Thursday, MCNC announced it had purchased equipment and services from Cisco to enable that company’s TelePresence videoconferencing suite over NCREN. Additionally, Cisco agreed to work with MCNC to help schools, educational institutions and other NCREN customers in supporting non-TelePresence video. The technical folks are also developing the means to link PCs, laptops and tablets to the videoconferencing capability, expanding the video reach beyond specially equipped rooms.

With the deal, says MCNC’s John Killedrew, NCREN can better support distance learning and other video needs. In some cases, schools and others won’t need to buy additional equipment in order to tap in to TelePresence. (
Read more about the deal here.)

“Schools can use either existing H.323 compatible gear they have already bought to take advantage of this capability or buy any brand [high definition] or [standard definition] compatible gear to connect,” said Killebrew, who is MCNC’s vice president of community support for NCREN. “What MCNC is doing is buying scheduling and switching gear to provide services so that each individual endpoint does not have to buy this gear.”

(Note: H.323 refers to a set of standards for audio-visual communication from the International Telecommunications Union’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector.)

Because Cisco has moved beyond Telepresence in videoconferencing, Killebrew said the networking giant is positioned to support a network not running on Cisco gear.

“Cisco recently introduced capability to support all brands of H.323 HD and SD video end points, so this isn’t really a standardization on Cisco TelePresence,” Killebrew explained. “The equipment MCNC has purchased from Cisco allows MCNC to schedule HD and SD video sessions for NCREN institutions that have H.323 video capability or Cisco TelePresence at their facility and allows all brands of gear to participate in point-to-point or point-to-multipoint sessions.

“This interoperability of different brands of equipment was key in MCNC’s decision to purchase the scheduling and video switching gear from Cisco because education institutions in North Carolina have bought different brands of end points,” he added.

Killebrew, a veteran executive at BellSouth before moving to MCNC several years ago, said MCNC is preparing for the days when the network expansion under the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) is complete and a decades-long dream of coast-to-mountain high-speed backbone is in place.

“NCREN, post BTOP, will have the capacity to greatly expand the amount of video traffic on the network,” Killebrew said. “MCNC is buying this gear to meet the increased demand for video services we are seeing today and to meet the growth the education institutions have told us to expect in the near future once the new fiber is in place.”

Killebrew wouldn’t comment about what MCNC is paying Cisco for the equipment and technical support that it is providing MCNC.

Plus, schools and other users will still need to purchase videoconference gear at their locations if they don’t already have it.

However, this deal with Cisco reflects MCNC’s commitment to making sure NCREN has plenty of “on” and “off” ramps and applications to run on the superhighway.

Get the latest news alerts: Follow WRAL Tech Wire at Twitter.