Northern New England telemedicine network gets off the ground

Health care facilities in New Hampshire and its two northern New England neighbors are starting to plug in to a new high-speed federally subsidized communications network designed to bring telemedicine to remote regions, according to FairPoint Communications.

Four health care facilities in Bangor, Maine, went online Nov. 19, while half of the 400 members of the New England Telehealth Consortium have signed contracts to join the network, according to FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins.

"The idea is that if you have a health facility in North Country, you will be able to send information back and forth so you can do telemedical consultation," he said. He said the network wouldn't only benefit facilities in rural areas. For instance, he said, "Dartmouth Hitchcock could communicate with Catholic Medical Center."

More than 65 of the participating facilities are located in New Hampshire, according to a list on the website of ProInfoNet, the Maine firm selected to design and implement the network. They range from Ammonoosuc Community Health Services in Woodsville to St. Joseph's Hospital in Nashua.

In 2007, the Federal Communication Commission's Rural Health Care Pilot Program awarded some $417 million to 69 groups to set up telemedicine networks. The New England consortium snagged the largest contract, $24.7 million.

About a third of the funding went to a number of vendors, including FairPoint, to build various pieces of the network, such as banks of servers in Bangor and Lebanon. The consortium is spending the rest of the money — $16 million — via FairPoint to subsidize 85 percent of the first two years of a four-year contract to provide data services.

FairPoint won't have to invest much once the contracts are signed, though it may have to add some fiber at some facilities. It has already spent $190 million to upgrade its fiber network in northern New England.

FairPoint expects to sign up and connect the rest of the participating facilities over the next several months, Nevins said.

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