Health care professionals, educators, librarians and researchers are talking with one another like never before as Pennsylvanians prepare for the launch of the commonwealth’s new Pennsylvania Research and Education Network (PennREN). A broadband network that will provide 1,600 miles of fiber through 39 Pennsylvania counties, PennREN will be one of the largest networks ever funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA). Penn State is collaborating with other leading Pennsylvania institutions in designing and shaping the scope of the new, statewide broadband superhighway.
“As we work to create and share in the opportunities of PennREN, different groups across Pennsylvania have come together in a way that has never happened in the past,” said Jeff Reel, executive director of the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), the organization overseeing the development of PennREN. “This new research and education network will enable these institutions and organizations to do things they truly haven’t been able to do before.”
Reel said that, through the shared experience of creating KINBER’s membership, stakeholders have found they have a great deal in common. Many of these groups already are beginning to share tools and resources. Partner organizations span the breadth of the Keystone State, including major hubs such as the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania, and 14 other universities and businesses.
Portions of PennREN are scheduled to begin operation in March 2012, and when fully completed in March 2013, the network will span 69 community anchor institutions statewide.
The network is comparable to a highway system that connects large-scale research and education hubs. Smaller networks will connect the highway to communities and users outside these major hubs, providing underserved rural communities with access to high-capacity broadband. The completed network will allow these communities to engage in efforts such as high-performance computing, video conferencing, telemedicine, digital research, collaboration with international colleagues and more.
“We’re beginning to realize that all organizations involved in this effort — large and small — have something to share,” said Bruce Taggart, vice provost of Information Technology at Lehigh University. “For example, Lehigh has a large, one-of-a-kind collection of electron microscopes, Pittsburgh has a world-renowned supercomputing center and Penn State has its vast science and research data. All these resources are network-accessible if users have the requisite bandwidth (which PennREN will provide). We’re finding out that all these different resources exist, and that we can work together to enable organizations throughout the state to share their benefits with one another.”
Until the project began, Pennsylvania had been among the last states in the U.S. without a high-speed broadband network connecting its higher education and health care institutions. All this has changed however, with the implementation of KINBER, Reel said. Federal stimulus funds also have helped make the shift.
“We want communities of users to talk to each other about how they can use this regional network as a way of pulling their different groups together,” he said. “These conversations are taking place now — Pennsylvania’s newly connected health and education groups are sharing best practices and opportunities as we speak.”
Wendy Huntoon, director of Advanced Networking at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, said an exciting future prospect is that higher network speeds will allow teleconferencing between regional hospitals and urban hubs, reducing the need for patient transfers. “Imagine how things could change for burn victims who are seeking treatment at rural facilities,” she said. “Right now, a team of doctors has to transfer a patient to a major hospital just to diagnose the degree of the burn. However, when the PennREN network goes live, a server that handles teleconferencing could make it possible for hospitals to immediately provide over-the-screen diagnosis.”
The new network also will allow students to move across universities and institutions digitally. For example, a university might offer a first-year writing course through a streamlined interface. Students at other Pennsylvania colleges and universities (and even college-bound high school students) would have the opportunity to take the same course remotely. In addition, the system will enable world-renowned experts to immediately reach classrooms and training venues throughout the state.