PLATTSBURGH The North Country will soon be on the fast track to providing residents improved access to health care and solving the issues of physician shortage at least thats the hope of those behind the creation of a broadband network. Howard Lowe is one such person who will be the featured speaker at a meeting of the Clinton County Senior Computer Club this Monday, March 3. Mr. Lowe serves as project director for CBN Connect, the coalition which aims to construct a 500-mile fiber optic and wireless network in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. The focus of Mr. Lowes discussion will be on how the creation of the network will not only bring improved broadband Internet service to the North Country, but benefit the local economy as well. As the issue of physician shortages in rural areas such as northern New York continues to be discussed, the establishment of a telemedicine network could aid in attracting and retaining physicians. Many rural areas are federally-designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, explained Mr. Lowe, and the telemedicine network would make specialists from urban medical centers available to patients and doctors here. The network would be a vital resource for small community clinics with only a few physicians available, he said. The new fiber optic telemedicine network that will be constructed can be the basis for expanded wired and wireless services throughout the North Country, Mr. Lowe said. Physicians look for this type of asset when considering relocating. While local hospitals have telemedicine resources available today, the new network will significantly expand those capabilities and provide fiber optic infrastructure for whatever the future may bring, said Mr. Lowe. In addition, it will include nursing programs at local colleges, providing new educational opportunities for students. Though the network technical design will be performed later this year, CBN Connect envisions fiber optic cable will be brought into each participating hospital, clinic or college building and connected to their internal communications systems, said Mr. Lowe. Consultations with specialists, diagnoses of patient conditions, sharing electronic medical records, and educational programming will all be possible on the network. The network will also provide a fiber optic backbone in support of cell phone and wireless coverage expansion, an issue which has also been long discussed. In order to aggregate and transport traffic, wireless and cell phone signals need to be connected to wired infrastructure at some point, said Mr. Lowe. The availability of a high capacity fiber optic backbone, or ring running throughout our region helps encourage wireless and cell providers to set up transmission facilities because they know their traffic can be efficiently transported, he said. CBN Connect also seeks to use existing fiber optic lines wherever possible, he said. The network is intended to be an open access wholesale system that will ideally carry services of many telecom providers and allow customers to choose the company from whom they get their Internet, voice and video services. Currently, approximately $8.6 million is committed to the project, which has an overall price tag of $35 million. The amount obtained to date is a combination of funding from the state and federal levels, the bulk of which comes from the Federal Communications Commission Telemedicine Rural Health Care Pilot Program. Mr. Lowe said it is expected both the federal and state governments will continue to offer significant grants and loans to further the project, though support from the private sector is being sought as well. The project will be phased, with construction of the initial network likely to begin next year. The first phase will consist of interconnecting CVPH Medical Center, Alice Hyde Medical Center, Adirondack Medical Center, Elizabethtown Community Hospital and the St. Regis Tribe Health Clinic as well as SUNY Plattsburgh, Clinton Community College and North Country Community College. The process is expected to take less than a year. If the North Country is to remain viable, said Mr. Lowe, it must retain and attract a variety of professional workers, especially physicians, nurses and medical technicians, and particularly young professionals. People living in rural areas want the same access, capability and ubiquity in their wireless and on-line services as their counterparts in more urban areas, said Mr. Lowe. Right now, despite the best efforts of our excellent local telecom companies, our region is not keeping up. Many areas of the North Country cannot get broadband, wireless or cell service, and very few have a choice of service providers. In order to compete in todays global economy, we must offer residents and visitors alike the same or better telecommunications services they find when they visit other parts of the country and the world, he added. The senior computer club will meet Monday afternoon at the Senior Citizens Council of Clinton County senior center, 5139 N. Catherine St. The meeting, which is open to the public, will begin at 1:45 p.m. For more information on the CBN Connect project, visit their Web site at www.cbnconnect.com .