Washington's Union Station rail terminal was the place to be for over three hundred invited people last February, to witness live surgery on a patient, some 300 miles away in an operating room at the State University's hospital in Ohio. Dr. Jerry Johnson remotely participated in the surgeons' performance during a dramatic demonstration of the future evolution of the Internet. The "tele-guided operation" was executed over the $500 million Abilene Network. This new ultra-fast data pipeline is able to operate at speeds that are 45.000 times faster than the best telephone modems used nowadays to surf the World Wide Web.
The high-speed computer connection, named after a major railhead that was set up for the Unites States' railroad system in the 1860s in Kansas, is faster at 2.4 gigabits per second than all except a few highly experimental federal government networks. The Abilene Network has been privately financed by corporations and currently is run by a not for profit group, headquartered in Washington. The use is entirely reserved to academic institutions and other professional researchers. For the moment, ordinary home users cannot dial in but network experts expect benefits will trickle down to consumers within just a few years.
Dr. Jerry Johnson, who is a doctor and researcher at Ohio State, was invited to remotely collaborate with a surgical team at the State University's hospital in Ohio in a delicate laparoscopic surgery. The local surgeon team inserted a miniature video camera into the body of a volunteer patient suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder. The demonstration was organized to show how the network might help physicians in one city to work with patients elsewhere. Dr. Johnson was able to communicate with his colleagues in Ohio by means of wireless microphones and a video camera. Both audio and video data as well as medical patient images were swiftly transmitted over the high-speed Internet lines.
The patient's abdomen could be viewed on huge screens, while the surgeons in Ohio were performing the laparoscopic intervention. The public, present at Washington's Union Station was invited to ask questions to the team. Dr. Johnson didn't execute the surgery himself from the Washington location, although researchers claim that robotic technology will undoubtedly enable remote surgical intervention one day. In any case, the organizers of this live event consider the medical debut of the Abilene Network to be a harbinger for the spectacular advancements in areas, such as telemedicine, education, tornado forecasting and yes - why not? - entertainment.
The Internet as we experience it today, certainly is not suitable to perform remote surgery. This is especially due to the potential for gridlock caused by the enormous flow of other data, ranging from the large amount of Web sites, over office jokes circulated via e-mail, to computer games played across the World Wide Web. In order to avoid these irritating kinds of Internet traffic jams, health care facilities typically have to resort to expensive closed-circuit video systems, which are beamed over a satellite link. Hospitals are forced to essentially rent their own expressway to guarantee that medical data can arrive on time.