SHINING LIGHT: Cheryl Dumas, health and wellness coordinator and claims co-ordinator, seated, and Robyn Pingitore, claims coordinator, use the new fiber-optic computer system at Fatima Hospital in North Providence.
In the digital classroom, few things are more frustrating for a teacher than trying to project a video to a large group of students and watching the computer freeze, said Thomas Thibodeau, assistant provost at the New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich.
When students are taking the class online or doing homework assignments transmitted over a school’s server, the impact of slowdowns can be even worse.
But Thibodeau hopes those concerns will fade into history once New England Tech – along with the rest of Rhode Island’s major colleges and hospitals – begin using the Beacon 2.0 fiber-optic broadband network being completed this year.
“In a modern organization, everything that you do gets done on the network,” Thibodeau said. “Basically, all of our courses have an online presence and that means faculty need to be able to put content online and students need to share it. Minimizing that distance is what it is all about.”
When finished sometime this summer, Beacon 2.0 is expected to increase Internet speeds at connected institutions between 50 and 500 times a conventional high-speed connection (such as a T-1 line,) depending on the user’s need for bandwidth.
Downloading something that used to take four hours will take one minute and complex video and three-dimensional images, from classroom live streams to emergency-room brain scans, will become clear and easily shared.
New England Tech is one of approximately 145 institutions in Rhode Island, southeastern Massachusetts and a sliver of Connecticut expected to use the 340-mile network.
Some, such as Charter Care New England, are already using the system, which has been in construction for two-and-a-half years.
The institutions range from large hospitals and universities to courts, police stations, libraries, city halls and elementary schools.
The nonprofit Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN) has been leading the Beacon 2.0 project, which was awarded a $21.7 million federal stimulus grant for boosting broadband in 2010.
“When you talk about something that connects schools, higher education and health care into a state-of-the-art, high-speed network, this is an extraordinary asset to the state,” said OSHEAN President and CEO David Marble. “For those that have been in the business of the bandwidth curve for multimedia high-density applications, it is fundamental to having the state being efficient in the long term.”
A coalition of colleges, hospitals and government agencies formed in 1999, OSHEAN had been working on a new fiber-optic network before the grant, but the federal money has rapidly accelerated the expansion process.
To build the network, OSHEAN has hired Cox Communications Inc., Rhode Island’s largest cable provider.
By the end of 2012, Cox had finished installing 75 percent, or around 255 miles, of the fiber-optic line needed to complete the network.
Marble said the roughly 85 remaining miles is on track to be finished by July and possibly a little earlier.
To complement the federal grant, OSHEAN’s member organizations contributed an additional $10.7 million.
Cox is running the new fiber-optic strands along poles and conduits carrying its existing cables with some additional subcontractors hired in certain areas where they have better access to certain facilities.
Following the intent of the federal grant, no part of the new fiber-optic network can be used for commercial purposes. That means high-tech businesses can’t buy a connection to the network and Cox can’t use the new equipment to bolster any aspect of its infrastructure.
Instead the system is seen as a way to give nonprofit “meds and eds” a leg up and for state and local governments to become more efficient.
At the outset of the Beacon project, about 80 organizations were supposed to be connected, but since then an additional 65 or so have been added as the work has been less expensive than expected, Marble said.
Massachusetts has its own grant-funded, high-speed, fiber-optic networks, but OSHEAN convinced federal officials that it could efficiently connect and maintain connections for Massachusetts Beacon users, including Wheaton College, Stonehill College and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
As of late December, there were 50 organizations on the list still waiting to be connected.
Once the network is up and running, maintenance will be paid for by fees from member users, with the amount charged to each calculated by how fast each connection is.
According to a list from the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, Brown University and Bryant University have the two highest connection speeds on the network, with Roger Williams University and Johnson & Wales University both one notch slower.
By further boosting its broadband network with Beacon 2.0, Rhode Island appears to be building on a strength in high-speed Internet infrastructure.
Last year, TechNet ranked Rhode Island the 11th-best state in the nation for high-speed Internet connectivity in its annual State Broadband Index.
At New England Tech, Thibodeau said the school, which is already physically connected to Beacon, was about a month away from flipping the switch and using it as its exclusive Internet connection at all locations.
“This is not only going to provide better access between campuses, but will simplify how we connect, with fewer connections and vendors,” Thibodeau said. “The more you can approach that seamless integration, the better we all are.” •
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