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Legislators Urge FCC to Open Up TV Airwaves for Telemedicine

A letter from 43 lawmakers asks that unused airwaves known as TV white space be set aside to extend broadband connectivity to rural America, clearing a barrier to telemedicine and telehealth expansion.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Congress and telemedicine advocates are jumping on the bandwagon to open up so-called TV white space for telehealth and other uses.

A bipartisan group of 43 members of Congress is urging the Federal Communications Commission to designate unused TV airwaves for the broadcasting of high-speed Internet to underserved parts of the country.

The lobbying effort follows an announcement last month by Microsoft that it would use TV white space - unused UHV television band spectrum below the 700 MHz frequency range that enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees - to bring Internet to millions of rural Americans and foster development of telehealth and other programs.

A letter drafted by U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and co-led by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Suzan DelBene (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.) calls on the FCC “to preserve at least three … television white space channels in every media market across the United States in order to promote access to affordable broadband Internet, particularly in rural, underserved areas.”

“According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, approximately 34 million Americans do not have broadband Internet access,” the letter states. “Of these, about 24 million live in rural communities that lack the network infrastructure necessary to provide a reliable and affordable broadband connection. This means students, farmers, doctors, law enforcement officials and families across rural America are unable to access the Internet and, consequently, are being denied the economic, health and public safety advances enables by that access.”

In a press release accompanying the letter, Cramer said TV white space would enable “robust, low-cost broadband connections” that could, among other things, connect rural healthcare providers to urban health systems and allow them to access “life-saving information.”

“We believe that the television white spaces (TVWS) have strong potential to revolutionize broadband internet accessibility in rural areas,” Cramer said. “TVWS allows a broadband internet connection to cover nine miles, while navigating the physical terrain that at times can make wireless broadband connectivity difficult. Because of this range, these Internet connections are extremely cost-effective requiring minimal infrastructure investments, and are far more dependable than the limited connections that many rural areas currently have.”

Among those supporting the Congressional effort is ACT|The App Association.

In a July 20 blog, Roya Stephens, ACT’s director of communications, pointed out that healthcare providers are using telehealth platforms that rely on wireless broadband connectivity to manage rural patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity. At the University of Mississippi Medical Center, for instance, a diabetes pilot program established in 2015 saw 96 percent of its patients complying with medication management plans after the patient were connected with their doctors through a wireless blood glucose monitor.

“The results of Mississippi’s diabetes telehealth pilot hold promise for the millions of Americans struggling with diabetes in rural communities. Yet these benefits can only be realized if we close the digital divide, and we contend that re-purposing TVWS can help accomplish that goal,” Stephens wrote. “We must put public resources like TVWS to good use, to ensure they can bring the greatest benefits to the Americans who need them most.”

The effort follows Microsoft’s unveiling in early July of a five-year plan to connect more than 23 million Americans in rural parts of the country who currently don’t have Internet access and empower businesses and health systems to improve their capabilities in underserved communities.

In a 52-page white paper titled “A Rural Broadband Strategy: Connecting Rural America to New Opportunities,” the tech giant lays out its strategy and goals, including explaining how increased access to broadband will fuel telemedicine and telehealth projects to help the nation’s beleaguered health ecosystem improve access and care in rural America.

“Broadband access is … an important part of managing healthcare delivery and wellness programs,” the report states. “Indeed, the availability of telemedicine has been an important development in rural areas which often have fewer doctors per capita than urban areas.”

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