4.15.2001 00:34
High-tech heaven

By building a high-speed network connecting nonprofits, OSHEAN is turning disparate groups such as Brown, URI, RINET, the Office of Higher Education and CCRI into one huge entity.
Journal Staff Writer

NORTH KINGSTOWN -- To George Loftus, executive director of the Ocean State Higher Education, Economic Development & Administrative Network, thin fiber-optic cables and huge suspension bridges are similar. Both carry heavy traffic.

Just like bridges connect land masses to speed the flow of people, OSHEAN's fiber-optic network will link Rhode Island colleges and universities to speed the flow of information.

In Loftus' mind, concrete bridges and delicate glass fibers have the same job -- both create a faster and more efficient way of connecting people.

"We're building a network of networks," says Loftus, barely able to contain his excitement as he explains OSHEAN's mission. "We're building infrastructure yet again. I compare it to the Newport Bridge."

Some might call the 41-year-old's elation over fiber-optic cables, networking routers and invisible traffic strange. But Loftus, the former director of network technology for Brown University, sees Rhode Island's future in that mix of hardware and data.

"[OSHEAN is an] early sign of what's to come," says Christopher Bergstrom, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council.

"Being on the cutting edge is very important to Rhode Island, and George is the person that got us there."

When OSHEAN was launched in 1999 it wasn't with the goal of transforming Rhode Island's information infrastructure. Instead, OSHEAN started because the University of Rhode Island and Brown wanted to hook into Internet2 -- the most elite computer network in the world.

Internet2 is an evolved version of the Internet. Free from cookie recipes and bad jokes, it's the superhighway for educational information. Research universities use Internet2 to work together to develop advanced uses for the Internet and new communication technology.

Both schools applied for, and each was awarded, a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant for high performance networking. The two schools set aside some of their grant money to build a fiber-optic connection linking the two schools' computer networks to each other and then to Internet2. Loftus, then the networking director for Brown, was chosen to head the network development.

While connecting the two schools, Loftus saw that expanding the network to other educational institutions and nonprofits across the state could have a positive economic and social impact on Rhode Island.

For example, if OSHEAN could persuade the Providence school system and the Community College of Rhode Island to connect their computer networks to the computers at Brown, the grade school, high school and community college students could have access to Brown's course material and research documents.

Loftus also saw that the OSHEAN network could enhance the way Rhode Island towns and municipalities communicate, while luring businesses to the state with its extensive web of high-speed Internet cables.

"OSHEAN really started with three premises: that higher education needed to band together to lower the costs; that the state was an important player in this because the state needed high-speed access; and the third piece was the piece that said this could help economic development," says Don Wolfe, vice president of computer and information services at Brown University, and Loftus's former boss.

"George was responsible for seeing that and putting those pieces together into a working organization," Wolfe says.

During 2000, on leave from Brown, Loftus was OSHEAN's only employee. But to Loftus, the Ocean State's lifeblood is technology. Dedicated to keeping it flowing, Loftus left his position as networking director at Brown in January to run the nonprofit OSHEAN full-time.

"I love this state," he says. "As we move into information being king, I think Rhode Island is well-positioned [to compete]. If I can help R.I. do that, then I've achieved my goal."

Now he works out of an office in the leaking, far-from-beautiful, former Camp Avenue elementary school.

This year, OSHEAN has a $1.7-million budget, most of it coming from the membership fees schools and universities pay to link their computers to OSHEAN's high-performance network. The organization is also funded by an unpredictable flow of federal and state grant money and the generosity of private industry.

On OSHEAN's board of directors sit networking and technology gurus from Brown, URI, Johnson & Wales, the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology (RINET) and CCRI.

Last year, the Economic Policy Council gave OSHEAN a $100,000 grant for its 2000 budget -- to help get other schools hooked into the network. But the last grant payment showed up this month and the money may or may not be renewed, according to Loftus.

OSHEAN recently announced a $30,000 grant from Verizon to help hook local grade schools and high schools to the network.

Despite the limited funding, OSHEAN has generated enough interest that Loftus was able, in February, to hire Kathleen D'Aguanno as director of business operations for OSHEAN. Both are making salaries slightly less than what they'd make in the networking department of a university, according to Loftus.

It isn't the first time the salt-and-pepper-haired technology guru has worked for Rhode Island's economic health.

Two years ago, Loftus launched the Information Technology Academy as a community service project, setting up nine Cisco Systems technology training programs across the state.

The Cisco academies train students on the California company's networking hardware, giving them the skills to nail fairly high-paying technology jobs when they graduate.

Loftus' belief in the inseparability of Rhode Island's economy and technology also led him to donate time to develop RINET.

The nonprofit group, made up of Brown, URI, Channel 36, The Department of State Library Services, and the Department of Education, provides discount Internet access to grade schools and high schools across the state. It also provides 15,000 Rhode Island teachers with free e-mail accounts.

Last year, Loftus also took trips to out-of-state technology companies, on behalf of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and OSHEAN, in an attempt to lure the businesses to the Ocean State.

And now, in addition to his job as head of OSHEAN, Loftus is advising the Rhode Island Technology Council as it launches "new media" academies based on the Cisco model.

Loftus' vision and dedication to the state's economic development prompts Bergstrom to label Loftus a "civic entrepreneur."

"The notion is that he's applying the same kind of energy and drive that an entrepreneur has," to improving the public sector, says Bergstrom. "It's that special skill and passion that causes entrepreneurs to be successful -- you need the same kinds of people working in the public realm."

To Bergstrom, Loftus makes the perfect technology role model -- one without an Ivy League pedigree. Loftus earned an associate's degree from CCRI and a bachelor's degree from Salve Regina.

He followed an "untraditional path to the high-level networking role at Brown," says Bergstrom. It has "given him a strong sense of wanting to help other kids, help kids do what he did, bootstrap themselves. He has a strong desire to pay back and serve as a role model."

Despite Bergstrom's praise, Loftus didn't start his career applying technology skills to the nonprofit sector.

A Newport native and current resident, Loftus started his career at Traveler's Insurance in Hartford as a computer programmer, and then joined Raytheon Co. in Portsmouth as a computer programmer and eventually moved into computer networking.

A few years later, Loftus ended up at Textron Financial Corp. in Providence as the manager of networking technology, where he made sure all the computers in the company's 10 offices across the country worked together and talked to each other.

After less than two years at Textron, Loftus left in 1991 for a networking position at Brown. He came to the university to develop a 10-year media plan and install a campus-wide network. It was at Brown that Loftus started thinking about giving back to society.

"I learned a lot at Brown about how a person could make a difference when they share knowledge. It's hard to explain to people," said Loftus.

Although Loftus launched himself into socially conscious projects like RINET, he never completely left the business realm. In 1997 Loftus, and his colleague Hugh Meier, started a networking design and communications consulting business in East Greenwich.

"Anybody who works in higher education has a consulting business, because that's the only way you can live," quips Loftus, who has a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old.

But in OSHEAN, his latest project, Loftus sees both a civic and a business opportunity.

By building a high-speed network connecting nonprofits across Rhode Island, OSHEAN turns disparate groups such as Brown, URI, RINET, the Office of Higher Education and CCRI into one, huge, high-tech entity.

Loftus says he believes OSHEAN will bring telecommunication competition to Rhode Island, as communications providers fight to provide this huge "customer" with fiber-optic cable and other communication services.

OSHEAN also cuts down on risk for telecommunications companies, says Loftus. OSHEAN members occupy space in some of the buildings telecommunications companies are looking to wire, so the firms aren't stuck with paying to wire a building without a tenant.

Plus, as OSHEAN connects its participating schools and government agencies and gives them access to cutting-edge communication technology, it is also wiring the state with the type of high-speed Internet access that attracts new high-tech businesses.

"We see ourselves as a market maker," Loftus says.

Loftus is also attempting to gain access for OSHEAN members into Internet2.

And that's where the civic aspect kicks in.

Until recently, only research institutions approved by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development -- a group of research university presidents -- could access Internet2 and transmit information and video footage at warp speed. But the OSHEAN group is so large, and contains two research schools with Internet2 access, Brown and URI, that Loftus says he is certain all of OSHEAN's members will be allowed to access the network.

And once local high schools and grade schools are connected to Internet2, their students will be able to watch live, educational video footage from around the world in the comfort of their classrooms. The connection will also make collaborative research between universities a breeze.

"It still has at its heart a very social mission," says Wolfe. "I think OSHEAN is young and George's influence is still growing. But, I think George has really provided the glue that makes this thing move."

Copyright 2001 The Providence Journal Company