The Adirondack add
another attraction

Collaboration provides groundbreaking videoconferencing and distance-learning solution.

by Michelle Blank, Ph.D

Three years ago, a project was initiated to link the local area networks (LANs) of institutions in the northern part of New York state. The network would provide the local communities in the Adirondack Mountains region with continuing medical education, distance learning, videoconferencing, telemedicine, and remote legal advice.

Having grown up in the area, David Bonner, currently the director of technology initiatives at The Sage Colleges and president and CEO of the Adirondack Area Network (AANet), knew that the telecom infrastructure there was poor at best.

David Bonner, current director of technology initiatives at The Sages Colleges and president/CEO of the AANet, spearheaded the regional videoconferencing and distance-learning solution. He also became the first patient at the Albany Medical Center whose minimal invasive surgery was broadcast over that network. Bonner(left) and Ken Sperl, vice president of networking services, in the OR, with Jackie Ford (via video), director of academic technologies from AMC's ATM network.

"I did some legwork ahead of time and found that the people wanted something done," he says. A requirement was that the solution be inexpensive, yet provide all the traditional line services and videoconferencing capabilities.

Today, AANet serves more than 150 institutions, including colleges, school districts, healthcare centers, legal organizations, hospitals, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. In addition to connections within New York state, institutions from the neighboring states and the Canadian province of Quebec want to join the network. In fact, AANet is confident that it will have 150 more members on line by the year 2000.

Network Technology

Originally funded by the New York State Advanced Telecommunications project (a Bell Atlantic grant), the AANet is a state-of-the-art subscription-based full-service network. Its implementation in early 1997, spearheaded by Bonner, began through the combined efforts of information technology experts in the Albany area. The collaboration included: The Sage Colleges; Albany Medical Center; Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) in Malone; Champlain Valley Educational Services in Plattsburgh; Bell Atlantic; RADVision, Inc.; Tandberg; Cisco; VTEL; the New York State Education and Research Network (NYSERNet); and New York state. With its fast growth rate, it quickly became an independent Section 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

Since ATM was difficult to obtain and Frame Relay available, the team developed the initial services to be IP over Frame Relay in the wide area. In order to make the best use of high-quality H.320-compliant systems installed in various member facilities, they deployed RADVision's OnLAN videoconferencing gateways and video interface units (VIUs) to make the H.320 systems work over the IP networks. "We have found this to be a very cost-effective way to convert legacy H.320 systems for use on this network. In addition, the H.323 boxes provide a routable protocol. In this fashion, we are able to accommodate video calls from any source and line media," Bonner says.

The combination of gateways and VIU terminal adapters for group video systems permits AANet users to communicate between campus local area networks and the Internet via Frame Relay. Other industry-leading companies supplying expertise and technology for this innovative videoconferencing network include Bell Atlantic, Cisco Systems, RealTech, and Compression Labs, Inc.

AANet played an essential role in disaster-recovery efforts after the record-breaking ice storms, snow, and intense cold that devastated this remote region in January 1998. Since then the AANet has expanded. There are more than 70 group videoconferencing end points on the network and 40 additional IP-videoconferencing desktop systems. These systems come from many manufacturers, such as Tandberg, VCON, VTEL, Intel, and PictureTel.

"We show users the different options they have and let them choose what they prefer," says Bonner. "We are familiar with all the products and know that, for most applications, they interoperate smoothly over our network. We also offer H.323 training to our member organizations. This is primarily for those local area network managers who want to know a little more about their options and how to set up and manage their zones. Their local seats have access to our infrastructure, including H.323 MCUs (multipoint conferencing units) and video network gateways."

Currently, for bridging, AANet has four RADVision MCUs (with nine ports each) and a H.320 VideoServer MCU (12 v.35 ports, 12 BRI ports, and 1 PRI port), and it plans to add to this capacity. Using gateways for front-ending the Videoserver MCU, and the MCUs as multipliers on these ports, the AANet presently supports a port density of 50 (8x4 + 11 + 4 + 3). Plans are to continue the MCUs multiplying effect to obtain a port density of 402 (8x4x12 + 11 + 4 + 3). Bonner says, "It is interesting to note that this port density even supports continuous presence, speed matching, and mixing of H.320, H.232e, and H.323 in a given bridged conference call."

Distance-Learning Program

The Albany Medical Center (AMC) conducted a groundbreaking distance program when the hospitals connected to the AANet participated in a live videoconference of a minimally invasive surgery procedure. To make this procedure visible to all call participants, the operation was broadcast to two rooms within AMC consisting of the operating room (OR) itself and a large conference room on campus. Joining in the conference via Frame Relay were five other sites in New York (AO Fox Hospital in Oneonta; Adirondack Medical Center, Saranac; Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh; Mary McClellan Hospital, Cambridge; and The Sage Colleges, Troy).

This new surgical technique allows the surgeon to perform the operation from outside the patient's body with the aid of scopes and porthole tools. The scopes, lasers, and other surgical devices are placed through portholes within the patient's body. The patient's surgery and the instruments are visible in a split screen, while the surgeon is viewed in the other portion of the screen. During the surgery the surgeon's scopes and workspace video are encoded and digitally mixed in real time. The multipoint distance-learning call is completely interactive, so that the surgeon can be seen and heard by participants who may ask questions in real time while viewing the operation. In this case, the patient was Dr. Bonner himself, who had a bilateral hernia repair under general anesthesia. Only three hours later, Bonner participated in the opening of the medical center's MIS training unit.

According to Dr. Paul Singh, the Albany Medical Center plans to do several on-line surgeries every month. There may be larger, university-based long-distance learning projects in existence, but none can be characterized by the kind of unique technical solution as that developed by this wide variety of companies, organizations, and institutions. By all accounts, this high-quality, reliable, easy, flexible, and inexpensive videoconferencing application is well ahead of its time.

Dr. Blank is vice president of global marketing for RADVision, Inc., Mahwah, N.J.

article from the pages of... Communication News