Does it cost more to mail a letter or make a phone call in Snug Harbor as it would in downtown Raleigh?

The answer is no. So, why should health care?

As health care begins to depend more on health information exchanges, electronic medical records, and Internet-enabled research for the next great cures, the North Carolina Telehealth Network (NCTN) will serve the high-bandwidth, low-latency network needs of health practitioners and researchers throughout North Carolina.

Dave Kirby, president of Kirby Management Consulting and NCTN project manager, said that in many instances today health care requires information to move faster than patients do. Added Kirby, “we have created a robust network to meet and exceed the health care needs of North Carolina citizens for years to come.”

The NCTN, which received the Public Leadership Award last year from the North Carolina Technology Association, is coordinated through the Cabarrus Health Alliance and is subsidized through the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program. The majority of that federal funding delves from the Universal Service Fund (now named the Connect America Fund) which provides eligible health care providers with telecommunications services, including broadband, that are necessary for the provision of health care today.

The goal of the FCC’s program is to improve the quality of health care available to patients in rural communities by ensuring that eligible health care providers have access to affordable telecommunications services.

There are currently three phases of the NCTN now in action.

  • The NCTN-PH phase for public health, free clinics and some community health centers currently serves 58 locations. The Toe River Health District serving Mitchell, Avery, and Yancey counties was the first connected on Dec. 29, 2010.
  • The NCTN-H phase for non-profit hospitals, which currently has 24 subscribed locations in North Carolina, saw its first connection on Dec. 11, 2011 as Vidant Medical Center in Greenville began to leverage a fully-dedicated 1 gigabit per second connection on the NCTN.
  • The NCTN Extension phase is the latest phase to get underway and focuses on broadening services for many existing NCTN health care sites as well as adding new sites. Kirby explained that new services are expected to be provided in this third phase extension and should continue at least until 2016 when the pilot program funds are set to expire. The same contract also could be structured and be useable with the discounts once the permanent program is in place lasting through 2025.

“The reformed permanent program will be a continuation of the pilot program, and the NCTN has positioned itself to benefit by providing a network/subscriber-based model that is driven by the users instead of the other way around,” said Kirby. “Broadband is more than a commodity in this instance as subscribers also drive and aid in the development of connectivity of services.”

To date, the NCTN has been a $14.2 million investment, of which 85 percent has been provided by the FCC for discounts through the Rural Health Care Pilot Program.

MCNC, in collaboration with the State’s Office of Information Technology Services, is currently providing connectivity services for the first two phases of the NCTN. Recently, the Research Triangle Park non-profit also was awarded through a competitive bid process to implement and operate the third phase of the project. In addition, private telephone, cable and telecommunications companies also have been contracted to provide last-mile transport services for the project.

“The NCTN is a combination of abilities and resources cooperating to make something like this happen,” closed Kirby. “We had to all come together to do this, and so far, we are on the right path to success.”

The NCTN currently has 85 active sites on the network with at least 25 more expected to join by 2016.