After six years of discussion and planning, a statewide network to link hospitals, universities, school districts and libraries is scheduled to come to life this spring.
Organizers say Kan-Ed, a digital network that includes four Lawrence organizations, will revolutionize the way institutions interact with one another, make the state more competitive and improve education programs.
"I think the potential is tremendous," said Mike Eltschinger, supervisor of instructional technology for the Lawrence school district. "We definitely need something like that in the state of Kansas."
Kan-Ed officials recently distributed $4,135 subsidies to each of 216 school districts, 272 libraries and 75 hospitals to help them prepare to connect with the network, which will use a combination of existing and new high-speed Internet lines.
In addition to the school district, the Lawrence Public Library, Kansas University's department of networking and telecommunications, and the Lawrence-based Northeast Kansas Library System will connect to the system.
Unlike rural areas -- where some schools will have high-speed Internet access for the first time -- commercial, high-speed Internet access already is available in Lawrence. But Eltschinger said there would be other benefits for urban districts, including the ability to use the statewide connection for distance learning.
"If we teach a course in Japanese or some other foreign language, someone else may want it," he said. "We'd be able to do teleconferencing for them. It's good to have that connectivity point between schools."
For Bruce Flanders, director of the Lawrence Public Library, Kan-Ed represents an opportunity to get additional online information. He said the system should have direct access to databases that can't be accessed by library patrons now.
"We already have access to reference databases, but if it becomes part of the Kan-Ed network, we can defer some of the costs to them," Flanders said.
He said the library also could use Kan-Ed video conferencing for continuing education and training for librarians.
Kan-Ed was established by state legislation in 2001, though the proposal had been circulating for three years before that. It receives $10 million in state funding per year, which is scheduled to continue through 2006.
The network is administered by the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees state universities.
Hal Gardner, Kan-Ed director, said the first institutions would be connected to Kan-Ed in March 2004, but the transition to full operation would be gradual.
"It's not like turning the light switch on," Gardner said. "It's more like turning up the dimmer switch."
And he said the technology and offerings would continue to develop as the system comes online.
"We want to treat this as a new campus treats sidewalks -- you see where the kids are walking and then lay the concrete," Gardner said. "We don't want to lay out rules until we get used to it."