FCC Approves New Broadband Program for Hospitals

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission took the first step Thursday toward reworking a US$400 million-a-year program to subsidize telecommunications services to rural health-care facilities, with the new emphasis on broadband.

The commission voted unanimously to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, designed to bring affordable broadband connectivity to more than 2,000 rural hospitals and clinics across the U.S. The purpose of an NPRM is to ask members of the public whether they agree with the proposed changes.

The money for the program would come from the Universal Service Fund (USF), funded with a tax of about 11 percent on long-distance and international phone service. USF's annual budget of about $7 billion a year would not rise under the proposal. The USF has traditionally subsidized telephone service in rural and poor areas.

The plan would give patients in rural areas access to state-of-the-art diagnostic tools often available only in the largest medical centers, FCC officials said. Many rural clinics and hospitals lack affordable access to basic broadband that can handle simple telemedicine functionality, the FCC said. Eight percent of U.S. Indian Health Service providers have broadband access, and 30 percent of all federally funded rural health-care clinics lack reliable broadband, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

"In the 21st century, high-quality health care depends on broadband connectivity," Genachowski said. "These are clinics at the farthest reaches of the United States, and in the center; in small town Appalachia, in the great Northwest plains, in the vast deserts of the Southwest, and in virtually every region of our country."

Commissioners noted that an existing rural health-care program in the USF was under-used in recent years, with a large percentage of the money going to facilities in Alaska. Most of the money used in the existing program went to telephone services, not broadband, the FCC said.

Under the new proposal, the FCC could partner with public and nonprofit health-care providers to build regional broadband networks. The new program could also subsidize network costs for health-care facilities. The new program would expand eligibility by about 2,000 health-care facilities nationwide.

Commissioner Michael Copps praised the proposal. "Since I came to the commission, I have pointed out the unfortunate truth that rural America lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to access to first-rate health care," he said. "That's bad news for such a prosperous nation as ours. When it comes to the well-being of our citizens who live hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital and are in need of medical care, telemedicine can be life altering, and sometimes life-saving."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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