Project hailed as boon to telemedicine, economy

Written by Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate January 23, 2014 10:52 am

John Irwin receives a crystal spike from Kim Lamb for playing a pivotal role in the project.
John Irwin receives a crystal spike from Kim Lamb for playing a pivotal role in the project. Jenny Marsh Photography
Redundant broadband also means that Internet connection will be more reliable

The completion of a fiber optics network will improve health care for Del Norte and Southern Oregon residents, make all Internet service more reliable and potentially jump-start the region’s economy, officials from both sides of the state line and Charter Communications representatives said Wednesday.

The “Sutter Coast Fiber Optic Project” is the final leg of an 87-mile long network from Grants Pass, Ore. to Crescent City, according to information provided by Charter, Sutter Coast Hospital, the Oregon Community Health Information Network and the Oregon Health Network. It completes a fiber optic ring that links Crescent City and coastal Oregon communities to Roseburg and other areas along the I-5 corridor south to Grants Pass.

The redundant fiber optic loop provides Del Norte with greater telemedicine capabilities as well as more reliable high-speed Internet, phone and telecommunications services, said John Irwin, an independent consultant who envisioned the project in 2000.

“This means that if the fiber is cut anywhere along the route, the big route, (the data) immediately reroutes itself and goes the other way around the ring,” he said. “That means we won’t have to withstand the severe outages that have occurred in the past.”

Irwin has been working with rural communities since he left the corporate world in the 1990s. One project he had a hand in is the Redwood Coast Connects project, which helped to bring broadband to Del Norte, Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties. On Wednesday, Irwin received a crystal spike from Kim Lamb, OCHIN’s vice president of marketing, for his work to help complete the broadband network. It was designed by Port Orford artist Chris Hawthorne.

Through the canyons

The $1.6 million project was paid for with funds from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program, the Oregon Department of Education’s High Desert Education Service District and Charter.

OHN secured the project funding in 2010. Construction began in 2012. City, county and federal officials cooperated with private landowners, environmental groups, Pacific Power and Light and Native American tribes to complete the loop.

Irwin likened the broadband networks running parallel along the coast and I-5 corridor to rails on a ladder. The rungs were the connections between the corridor and the communities along U.S. Highway 101. But there was no broadband connection between Crescent City and the I-5 corridor, he said.

The first phase of the project, which laid down a fiber optics line from Grants Pass to Cave Junction, was paid for with FCC funding, Irwin said. Project developers then breached the Siskiyou Mountains and connected the network to a Charter-owned fiber optics line that already ran from Crescent City to Gasquet, he said.

Workers followed Pacific Power’s utility easement, shooting cannons across ravines and rappelling up and down cliffs to lay the fiber optics line, Irwin said.

Brian Neubert of XL Overhead Construction, which actually laid the cable, said he spent the first part of the project working during the summer, but experienced “so much snow” in the mountains during the winter.

“We walked 30 miles over every single canyon and mountain until we got a helicopter,” he said, adding that the helicopter made the job easier.

One major catalyst in the creation of this broadband project was the desire to extend more advanced telemedicine capabilities to rural communities in Southern Oregon and Del Norte County. According to the information provided at Wednesday’s celebration at Sutter Coast Hospital, a new 1-gigabyte circuit that plugs in at the hospital allows an MRI to be transmitted in less than a second. 

Telemedicine has been an integral part of the Open Door Health Centers and Del Norte Community Health Center since 1996, said CEO Herrmann Spetzler, who is on OCHIN’s Board of Directors. This allows the organization’s 70 doctors, including the five in Del Norte, to teleconference with each other on a daily basis. They can also communicate with doctors at medical institutions, including the University of California San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University, he said.

Telemedicine also allows Open Door’s patients to communicate with specialists in the Bay Area without having to make the trip, Spetzler said.

“It’s a three-day trip for 15 minutes with the doctor,” he said, adding that doctors and patients communicate with each other through a secure line. “Now telemedicine can cut the number of times you need to go by about a third.”

Spetzler added that one day telemedicine will be as ubiquitous as the stethoscope.

“In five to 10 years it’ll be just like the cell phone,” he said. “That’s another tool that’s valuable.”

A boon to businesses

In addition to the health care benefits, the redundant broadband network can help jump-start Del Norte’s economy, Irwin said. Local businesses will be able to better compete in the global marketplace, and service providers such as software companies will be able to better respond to them, he said.

Now that the entire 720-gigabyte loop is completed, Irwin said he hopes a “strategic framework” will be created to help Del Norte and other rural areas realize the network’s full potential.

“We’ve got a lot of pieces there and it seems it would make sense to have some sort of strategic framework,” he said. “It’s just like this project that’s just now coming to fruition, there was no way to map a step-by-step linear plan. But we always had an understanding of where we wanted to end up. What it took, though, was a lot of work to understand how to pull the different pieces together inch by inch.”

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