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Microsoft’s New Broadband Strategy Includes a Nod to Telehealth

Microsoft has unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to expand broadband access to rural America, a project that could fuel telemedicine and telehealth programs to undersserved communities.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Microsoft has announced plans to help improve rural America’s broadband capabilities, an ambitious project that could kick-start telemedicine projects to underserved communities.

Unveiled Tuesday, “A Rural Broadband Strategy: Connecting Rural America to New Opportunities” aims to make use of so-called “TV white spaces spectrum” - unused UHV television band spectrum in the 600 MHz frequency range that enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees. 

The five-year project looks to connect more than 23 million Americans in rural parts of the country that 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, 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.”

READ MORE: Telehealth Supporters Lobby DC for Better Broadband Connectivity

Through telemedicine, the Microsoft paper explains, healthcare providers in Utah have increased their range of coverage and their ability to remotely diagnose medical issues, thus helping overcrowded hospitals. And the Saint Vincent Health System in Erie, Penn., has seen readmissions drop 44 percent with telemonitoring.

“Investing more resources to improve the connectivity of broadband to hospitals and healthcare providers based in rural communities would likely yield better services in health protection and restore greater efficiency to wellness programs for those in need,” the paper continues. “Greater broadband connection for larger rural healthcare providers would lessen the demand for more bandwidth, which in turn would lower costs, resulting in more resources to be reinvested in patient care.. Currently, these rural healthcare providers pay up to three times as much for broadband as their urban counterparts, and many times these providers forgo broadband altogether.”

“Access to broadband can also help the quality of medical and rehabilitation treatment to groups such as veterans, many of whom live in rural communities,” the report concludes. “Broadband can bring patients closer to their care providers and expand the number of services available to them.”

In a blog on the Microsoft website, Brad Smith, the company’s president and chief legal officer, said Microsoft will embark on a multi-faceted program to extend broadband capabilities into rural America – while also seeking pledges from the government to help move the project forward.

Smith anticipates that white space spectrum can be used to improve connectivity for some 80 percent of rural America, while the rest would be accessed through a combination of improved satellite coverage (for areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile) and fixed wireless and limited fiber (for communities with a density greater than 200 people per square mile).

READ MORE: Tying Telehealth to Better Rural Health Outcomes

“One of the big benefits of this new approach is a dramatic reduction in the cost of bringing broadband rates to rural communities,” Smith sayid. “By relying on this mixture of technologies, the total capital and initial operating cost to eliminate the rural broadband gap falls into a range of $8 billion to $12 billion. This is roughly 80 percent less than the cost of using fiber cables alone, and it’s over 50 percent cheaper than the cost of current fixed wireless technology like 4G.”

“The key now is to stimulate private sector investment and combine this with targeted and efficient public-sector support,” he added.

This would be done, he said, through three channels:

  • Through the Microsoft Rural Broadband Initiative, the company plans to partner with telecommunications companies to launch 12 projects in 12 states – Maine, New York, Virginia, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona and Washington – over the next year.
  • Through Microsoft Philanthropies, the company will invest in digital skills training for people in these rural regions, partnering with organizations like the National $-H Council.
  • And finally, the company plans to stimulate investment “through royalty-free access to at least 39 patents and sample source code related to technology we’ve developed to better enable broadband connectivity through TV white spaces spectrum in rural areas.”

Smith also called on federal officials to commit to the program in three ways:

  • First, the Federal Communications Commission “needs to ensure the continued use of the spectrum needed for this mixed technology model,” he wrote. “Specifically, it will be important for the FCC to ensure that three channels below 700 MHz are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets and rural areas. Among other things, this will help stimulate investment by hardware companies to produce the needed chips for new devices at a higher scale and lower cost.”
  • Second, he called on federal and state governments to target matching funds on capital investments in infrastructure improvements to extend broadband into rural regions. “These funds should be made available for use by multiple technologies based on what is the most cost-effective in the region, including TV white spaces, fixed wireless and satellite usage,” he wrote. “They should be awarded based on criteria that prioritizes either accelerating broadband coverage or incentivizing private sector investments in the communities where they are less likely to flow on their own.”
  • Finally, Smith called on the FCC to accelerate “its work to collect and report publicly on the state of broadband coverage in rural counties, thereby aiding policy makers and the private sector in making targeted investments.”

“As a country, we should not settle for an outcome that leaves behind more than 23 million of our rural neighbors,” Smith concluded. “To the contrary, we can and should bring the benefits of broadband coverage to every corner of the nation.”

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