Distance No Longer A Barrier To Education Or Health
While distance learning has recently become a new normal for students and parents across the globe, it’s been a part of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) community for more than five decades. In Utah, once outside the main cities of Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo, you quickly come face to face with the American West. This phrase conjures up images of the proverbial pioneer spirit: of independent and self-sufficient people with a connection to the land and a desire to thrive on their own. But in some matters – such as education and medicine – it can be difficult to be truly connected and thrive when not located near an urban population center. That’s why forward-thinking people at the University of Utah jumpstarted what is now the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) with a $100,000 grant more than 50 years ago, to bring the best in educational and medical pedagogy and expertise to the remotest corners of the state.
The initiative to connect these isolated areas started with an engineer packing broadcast translator equipment by horseback to a remote mountain top to broadcast educational TV programs to a remote Utah community. That experiment led mountaintop microwave gear making interactive videoconferencing a reality.
Flash forward to today. Today, the UETN is nearly finished connecting the entire state via broadband fiber. At this point, the network connects nearly 1,700 sites, including public schools, colleges, hospitals, health centers and clinics, supporting almost 650,000 elementary and high school children as well as 200,000 students in higher education and technical colleges, and 70,000 of the professionals who teach them. In addition, many patients no longer need travel great distances to connect with health care providers, instead getting the services and support they need through the UETN.
What makes this possible: the power of the collaboration with education, healthcare, government, business and telecommunication providers including CenturyLink. Many of Utah’s highspeed, secure connections are made with CenturyLink® GeoMax® DWDM network over fiber.
Reflecting a global trend
Even before the current crisis, there were several factors driving the acceleration of distance learning, most prominently the growing populations of people to educate while keeping costs down, the current trend toward lifelong learning in both personal and professional lives around the world, and the fact that in rural or geographically difficult-to-reach areas, it’s easier to connect to educational resources via the internet than travel to a physical school.
This is not just happening in the United States. In today’s connected world, even the most remote communities on the planet are getting access to the best education and medical resources through networking technologies. In Sub-Saharan Africa, information and communication technologies that include videos, online training modules, and web-based training systems are used to educate high schoolers in distant villages. In Greece, distance learning offers local residents of remote islands the opportunity to get an education while still tending to all-important family life.
Telehealth is seeing the same escalating numbers. Telehealth refers to the use of technologies for delivering healthcare by connecting caregivers with patients who are physically remote from each other. The global telehealth market size was valued at $49.8 billion in 2018, and was projected to grow by 23.4% to $266.8 billion by 2026.
Telemedicine is at its best when delivering medical services to remote or immobile populations, alleviating capacity challenges at overburdened healthcare facilities, and making specialists available via videoconferencing and electronic medical records. Telemedicine can enhance not only access to care but also the quality of care provided in small rural hospitals.
According to a 2019 survey by American Well, 66% of consumers were willing to use telehealth, and 8% had tried it. They survey also showed that the ways in which these consumers want to use telehealth varied – millennials want to address increasing mental health issues; middle-aged consumers want to depend upon telehealth for emergency situations; older populations want telehealth to renew prescriptions and to manage chronic conditions. And already, two-thirds of consumers use personal health monitoring devices like smartwatches or smart wristbands.
A robust and secure infrastructure needed
Growing distance-learning and telehealth trends will require an increasingly robust network infrastructure that is available globally, as well as technologies such as mobile devices, telecommunications devices, video conferencing, and digital imaging standards. All these innovations work together with the network to overcome the distance barrier in the delivery of care and knowledge.
Today’s networks must have both the capacity and reliability to handle the high-bandwidth applications and video required for distance learning and telehealth. For example, an average class transmitted via video requires 3 to 4 Mbps per second per feed to a student. In a class of 32 students, this ends up consuming 150 to 250 Mbps, which means that the network has to have a lot of capacity.
Additionally, education and health care are both highly regulated industries. The privacy of student and patient data is paramount. Regulations like the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which specifies the steps that must be taken to ensure children’s digital privacy and security, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which regulates patient privacy in healthcare, mean that medical and educational institutions have to be extremely careful how they transmit data over a network.
In the case of UETN, the organization knew it needed a third-party expert and partner to help it navigate through these complex regulatory and technological waters. UETN chose CenturyLink’s GeoMax networking platform running over dedicated fiber-optic cabling. To make sure that the bandwidth and flexibility of the cabling was sufficient for customers’ needs, CenturyLink designed GeoMax using Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) technology in which multiple circuits run independently of each other over the same fiber infrastructure. Because GeoMax is a dedicated network set up on a custom basis, UETN gets as much bandwidth as it needs, when it needs it. And because UETN qualifies for federal programs specifically designed to help public education and rural health care, it was able to “lease” this bandwidth at substantial discount.
Full steam ahead
Since first deploying CenturLink’s GeoMax, UETN has increased its network capacity from 10GB to more than 100GB. Today, the network connects almost 1,700 public schools, colleges, hospitals, health centers and clinics throughout the state.
On the education side, UETN offers services to almost 650,000 elementary and high school children as well as 200,000 students in higher education and technical colleges and 70,000 educators. As a result, Utah children no longer are limited to physical brick-and-mortar classrooms. Technology breaks down the walls and brings the world to the classroom through virtual field trips, teleconferencing, and online access to textbooks, video content, and interactive classes.
On the healthcare side, patients can connect with and get treated locally without having to travel great distances to see medical professionals. Many people who would otherwise skip the doctor are being provided with needed care. This improves the quality of life as well as saves money and time for both caregivers and patients.
Expertise still required
These services will continue to expand and only grow richer and more useful. But despite this rousing success, with the population of Utah expanding at the same time that technology is evolving at accelerating rates, UETN will need to depend on its partner, CenturyLink, more than ever. Indeed, UETN’s future growth hinges on its ability to expand delivery of reliable, high-bandwidth connectivity throughout Utah. This means that the network will have to support increasing numbers of people, devices, and bandwidth-hungry applications. This growing complexity requires a partner that understands UETN vision, and who can help it attain it both today and tomorrow.
Learn more about CenturyLink’s unique solution for the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN).
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