Adirondack Area Network's idea brings affordable videoconferencing

by MARIANNE COMFORT
ALBANY - Having grown up in the Adirondacks, David Bonner, knew just how remote the North Country could be. So he was concerned that modern communications would leave the region far behind.

To ensure cost-effective access to videoconferencing and the Internet, he developed a network that can be independent of fiber optics technology not yet extended to the more rural communities of northeastern New York.

The non-profit Adirondack Area Network now serves about 100 health-care facilities, school districts, government offices and, most recently, even some small businesses.

Using videoconferencing equipment redesigned for this project, rural members are tuning into live surgeries at Albany Medical Center Hospital, ambulance crew training sessions and community college courses.

They're also using the network to access the Internet and talk with other members without additional, long-distance charges.

"A bunch of technology wizards can get together and do anything, but [what makes this important] is appropriate usage and community benefit," said Bonner, president and CEO of the network, which is based at Sage Junior College of Albany.

The concept developed out of Bonner's work in creating campus communication networks. He realized that he could transfer that success to a much larger network connecting various institutions throughout a vast geographic area.

Adirondack Area Network was born of a partnership among Sage Junior College, where he is director of Sage Technology Initiatives; Albany Medical Center Hospital; Bell Atlantic (now Verizon); and technology companies Compression Labs Inc., RadVision and Realtech.

Growing Network
A $1.38 million grant from Bell Atlantic in 1995 and matching funds from participating institutions and some foundations allowed for the development of a prototype network. A network with 45 member institutions was up and running in 1997.

The network - now funded through memberships, institutional support and grants - has expanded to four telephone area codes stretching from the mid- Hudson Valley to the Canadian border and Central New York and the Southern Tier.


"A bunch of technology wizards can get together and do anything, but [what makes this important] is appropriate usage and community benefit," said Bonner


The technology is also used by the Texas Public Utility Commission for its online hearings, and Bonner recently visited Guatemala to demonstrate how the network could be adapted for a country with difficult telephone service and low density areas.

Adirondack Area Network provides access to communication technology at a lower cost and with better quality than could be achieved through traditional dial-up access to an Internet service provider often a long-distance phone call away, members say.

Instead of paying upward of $100 per hour in long distance charges for a videoconferencing program, for instance, members pay an average of $2500 per month for a package that includes videoconferencing, Internet access, Web site hosting and voice service. More basic services are available for as low as $150 per month, Bonner said.

Anyone can log onto the network's Web site, at aanet.org, to view archived surgeries, educational programs, government hearings and community service projects.

A fiber optics system, if a school has access to it, can cost up to $100,000 to install, said Andrew DeFeo, administrator for technology and district-based services for Questar, the Rensselaer-Columbia-Greene Counties BOCES. The Adirondack Area Network's videoconferencing unit costs about $20,000 and comes with lower monthly fees, he said.

"We get the same quality for a greatly reduced price," DeFeo said.

Questar is using the system in three high schools - Hudson, Ichabod Crane and Berlin - and plans soon to add Germantown, DeFeo said. Students have been able to take virtual tours of the Johnson Space Center in Texas, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Staff have received training over the videoconferencing system.

The network, independent of phone and electrical service, also allows for outside communications in the event of emergencies, DeFeo said.

The network remains economical for members, in part, because of large group discounted rates negotiated with the telecommunications corporation Verizon, Bonner said.

Verizon is the main network provider, setting up the communication hardware for new members, he said.

Non-profit organizations, governments and school districts aren't the only ones attracted to this alternative technology, Bonner said. The network is now drawing interest from small businesses as well.

Small businessses in the Adirondacks, for instance, are sharing Web servers to post sites on the Internet, he said.

Just before Christmas, for instance, Bonner got Candy Man Adirondack Homemade Chocolates in Jay online and helped owner John Doherty link his new site with search engines.

As a small business owner, Doherty said he has enough to keep him busy just running daily operations and needed some assistance to take this online marketing step.

"They do a good job there and are definitely knowledgeable," Doherty said of network staff.

Bonner also worked with the Adirondack Economic Development Corp. to deliver online entrepreneurial training for people interested in starting their own businesses in the region.

Closer to home, Gorman Brothers, an asphalt contractor located at the Port of Albany, is considering the network as a more cost-effective alternative to its current telecommunications service, said Barbara Morse.

Through the system, she said, she will be able to coordinate billing information and keep in touch by e-mail and voice with the company's 10 sites located throughout New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

"I'll be able to talk to all those sites without long-distance calls," she said.