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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Tech industry to revolutionize information exchange

By David Nutter

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 36 - July 25, 1996

President Paul Torgersen has announced a landmark partnership between the state's telecommunications industry and state and local government that lifts the gate on creating a true information superhighway connecting every corner of the commonwealth.

Dubbed Access Virginia, the state-wide, high-speed, multimedia network will be capable of simultaneously transmitting two-way integrated voice, data, and video images over the Internet from thousands of sites across Virginia. In time, the network will connect every state and private university and college, community college, and secondary school in the state.

At a news conference at the North Run Corporate Center at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Torgersen announced the signing of a multi-year contract creating a partnership between the state's telecommunications companies and educational communities.

Participating in the news conference were Robert Woltz, vice president for external affairs at Bell Atlantic; Don Teague, vice president for government systems at Sprint; JoAnn Gora, provost of Old Dominion University; and Arnold Oliver, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.

"Because of the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, Access Virginia provides the incentive for aggressive investment by Bell Atlantic and its partners and Sprint and its partners to provide advanced communications technologies to all sectors of Virginia's state and local government, with particular emphasis on education-K-12 and higher education," said Erv Blythe, vice president for information systems at Virginia Tech and project leader.

Blythe said that under the terms of the contract, public agencies-state and local-as well as private educational institutions can purchase services off the contract to meet the specific needs of the institutions. Importantly, the contract will deliver these services at a pre-established rate, independent of the location where the service is provided.

"Under the contract, it will cost the same to connect a school in Grundy as it will to connect a school in Fairfax," said Blythe.

For the higher-education institution, the cost of implementing the first phase of the project will come from the reallocation of funds from existing distance-learning projects the three higher-education institutions currently operate, Blythe noted.

As an example, with this technology music students at Virginia Tech could take music courses currently not offered in Blacksburg from Old Dominion University, live over the network. Students could participate in a live section with students seeing and talking to each other and sharing musical compositions simultaneously over the network. Public-school teachers could take recertification courses from state universities of their choice through local community colleges. High-school students could take advanced-placement classes from universities in Virginia. All of these interactions and hundreds more could take place at the same time in an unlimited number of sites across the state because of Access Virginia.

"This technology, known as a broad bandwidth network, marks the true beginning of the information superhighway in Virginia," Blythe said. "Even with high-speed modems, we've only been driving on a country road. Broad bandwidth technology represents the true superhighway, with thousands of lanes coming and going at the same time."

The contract signing begins the first phase of the project that will establish in excess of 45 sites across the state by the end of 1996. "Within two years, I expect there will be in excess of 70 sites around Virginia," Blythe said.

Project leaders said that there will be four primary test sites that will be operational by fall. They are Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, New River Community College, and Blue Ridge Community College. The fifth site, the Virginia Tech/University of Virginia Northern Virginia Graduate Center in Falls Church, will be connected once the new building, now under construction, is completed later this year.

The Virginia Community College System intends to connect all 38 campuses of the 23 colleges comprising the VCCS this fall.

"Access is the key word for the Virginia Community College System technology initiatives. Access to education from any part of the state, access to information from around the world, and access to community-college services are critical to the VCCS and to the economic future of Virginia," said Lawrence Hengehold, vice chancellor for information technology for the VCCS.

"The new network will vastly increase interactivity between and among students and the faculty. The technology will interconnect students by voice, data, and video, allowing them to not only access vast amounts of information, but also to participate in on-line discussions, complete class projects and prepare video reports for presentations. TELETECHNET students will also be able to store information in individual computer notebooks and work with the faculty to solve instructional problems through simultaneous on-line access. And, all of this will be accomplished at prices that are 10 to 90 percent lower than we currently pay," said James Koch, president of Old Dominion University.

Project leaders also say that Access Virginia will also have important economic development considerations.

"Once the fiber-optic trunk lines and switches are installed and operating in every corner of the commonwealth, the general public and private industry will benefit, too. As an analogy, think of this as something similar to a water main line. Once the line is put in, anyone can tap into the pipeline. Now, even the most remote areas of Virginia will be technologically able to support the addition of new industry, like Motorola," Torgersen said.