For most, a slow Internet connection is an annoyance, a long wait to download a file or an interrupted movie.
But for Bruce Lee, it can be a matter of life and death.
Lee is a family practice physician at Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center in Chanute, which has no neurologists. When he gets a patient with stroke symptoms, the city of Chanute’s ultra-high-speed Internet service becomes a lifeline to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, 110 miles to the east.
Using a robotic device affectionately called Dr. SAM – for Stroke Assessment Monitor – Lee or others can instantly connect with a stroke neurology specialist at Wesley. The specialist can use remote controls, cameras and two-way video to examine and talk to the patient, monitor test results and prescribe treatment to minimize the damage to the brain.
It’s a quantum jump from the days when rural physicians had to consult with a specialist by telephone, Lee said.
“It helps us get (the patient) the right treatment quicker,” Lee said. With stroke victims, “time is brain.”
The hospital might be the most dramatic example of the impact that community broadband has had in this southeast Kansas town of 9,100 people. But the system’s being used all over town to facilitate business that’s been hard to do on the much slower connections that commercial broadband companies provide.
So far, the city has been able to extend its lightning-fast fiber optic network to institutions including the hospital, the local community college, the library, banks and other speed-critical businesses. Now, the city is poised to embark on a $13.5 million project that will expand access to homes and small businesses throughout the community.
Since 2005 when Chanute became an Internet service provider, the city has never lost a customer, said Larry Gates, the city public works director who’s leading the charge for community broadband.
It’s a rare day when somebody doesn’t convert part of the city library into impromptu office space.
“We have a number of people who come in and are working from home and just need faster speed than what they have,” said library director Susan Willis. “So they’ll come in and spend time here on their laptops doing their work.”
On Thursday, Gary Scott was training Portia Murphy to use the computer systems of Pyxis Inc., a company that works with the state to find jobs for people receiving public assistance.
“Most libraries have Internet access, but as far as the speed and the capabilities (of Chanute), probably not,” he said.
Murphy said she’ll be first in line if Chanute ever extends its Internet service to the nearby community of Stark, where she lives.
“Sold, seriously, most definitely,” she said.
Willis said municipal high-speed access allowed Chanute to join a 40-library consortium that shares information and books throughout the region.
Without the city system, it would cost $600 to $700 a month for dedicated Internet lines to participate, she said. The money saved is used to buy educational programs for children, access to databases and books, she said.
Neosho County Community College President Brian Inbody said the high speed and bandwidth from the city Internet system has helped the college to grow more rapidly than any other community college in Kansas. “Our online now represents nearly a third of our enrollment.”
Not long ago, students would come to college with just a computer. Now, Inbody said, they average between three and four Wi-Fi-connect devices each, including smartphones and tablets.
People from the community at large can use communication rooms at the college for telemedicine appointments with doctors at the University of Kansas Medical Center, saving them a four-hour round trip to Kansas City, Kan.
But it’s not all work and no play.
“To give you a sign of the times, we took out all the pool tables and foosball tables (from the dormitory) and put in a 24-hour gaming lounge,” Inbody said.
The lounge is equipped with PlayStation and Xbox consoles, monitors, couches and purpose-built gaming chairs.
The lounge is a way to get gamers out of their rooms and into a social setting. Research shows the more friends students make, the better the chance they’ll stay and complete their education, Inbody said.
Nicole Lacrone, a 19-year-old student, used a college computer last week to write a speech for a summer class. She could have done it at home, but said she doesn’t have a printer and the higher connection speed helps her get more done faster.
“I don’t want to have to wait three minutes to be able to load a page,” she said.
There’s no question that Chanute has benefited greatly from the public investment in broadband, said Dennis Franks, the chief executive at the hospital.
“It’s innovations like this that keep us out there trying to do the things that are necessary to get the business opportunities that we need for our community to grow,” Franks said. “And if a community’s not growing, it’s obviously doing something else, which is not good.”