The struggle to provide basic, modern healthcare in western Nebraska echoed the issues experienced by rural communities across the U.S. The lack of physicians and specialists, limited medical resources, and insufficient broadband led nine different healthcare systems spanning 14,000 square miles of Nebraska to form the Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network (RNHN). Made up of roughly 20 clinics, one regional hospital, and a collection of critical access hospitals that have fewer than 25 beds, RNHN believed that by working together, they could acquire sufficient Internet capacity, coordinate healthcare applications, and develop telemedicine solutions for their communities.
Securing the necessary funding to build a multimillion-dollar fiberoptic network — even with millions of dollars in federal grant funding available — proved more difficult than RNHN envisioned. RNHN began navigating the highly complex and competitive process and soon realized they needed a partner with the appropriate technical expertise, business knowledge, and grant application experience. FG was that company and the partner that helped RNHN transform healthcare delivery across the sparsely populated Nebraska Panhandle.
Laying the Groundwork for Better Connection
In order to bring state-of-the-art connectivity to rural Nebraska counties, the infrastructure needed to be built. This involved laying new cable across hundreds of miles of countryside. It became the largest greenfield (brand-new construction) project supported by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Rural Health Care Pilot Program.
The initial grant request submitted by RNHN was denied, but with FG’s guidance, planning, and project management, they advanced to the final stages of federal approvals after two years of meticulous work.
The Rural Health Care Pilot Program funded 85 percent of the $20 million projects. RNHN’s application needed to demonstrate they could finance the remaining 15 percent of the project. The next hurdle was raising the final $3 million.
Outside-the-box thinking led FG to work with the local service provider to purchase a bundle of the network fibers. It was a difficult ask because the company would need to provide funds 18 months before they could access the network as well as commit to the project without any specifics about where the cable would be installed. The company not only agreed, but they committed to purchasing $8 million worth of cable, giving RNHN not only the matching dollars but also additional operational funds to be used over time, enabling them to finance upgrades as needs arise. Selling their own dark fiber to the local network provider has expanded access to high-speed internet throughout rural Nebraska.
A Transforming Partnership
FG’s role with the project grew over time, moving from advisors to guiding the networking, engineering, and design phases of the project. They provided cost-saving solutions by purchasing high-capacity circuits that connect the private 950-route mile fiberoptic network to Omaha and Denver. RNHN can now access competitively priced network providers outside the Nebraska Panhandle.
“We work through all those stages with our clients because we have expertise at all of those levels. And if we don’t have the expertise for something new, we’ll reach out to a partner, dive in, and get the problem solved,” says Kent Van Metre, Vice President of FG.
FG continues to partner with RNHN, managing the network operations center and doing basic system and engineering work. FG has recently upgraded the gear they initially installed for RNHN as part of a planned network upgrade.
Thanks to the fiberoptic network, healthcare in rural Nebraska has been transformed. One impactful change has been at critical access hospitals, which are not set up to deal with severe trauma. High-speed optical cameras installed on the ceilings above emergency room beds enable off-site physicians to help diagnose and treat patients or prepare them for transport to a larger hospital.
“FG brought everything to the table- industry expertise, engineering, design, financial modeling, and project management. They demonstrated a unique and highly customized approach to our complex project. There is no way we could have done this without them,” says Todd Sorensen, Past President of Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network.