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New Group Lobbies to Use ‘TV White Space’ for Rural Telehealth

Citing its uses for telehealth and telemedicine, Connect Americans Now is urging the FCC to include 'TV white spaces spectrum' in its efforts to expand broadband connectivity to rural America.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- A group of business and advocacy organizations is making another push for improved broadband connectivity in rural parts of the country, saying it would – among other things - boost access to telehealth and telemedicine services for millions of underserved Americans.

Connect Americans Now (CAN) announced itself this week with a plan to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other stakeholders “to ensure that there is sufficient unlicensed low band spectrum in every market in the country to enable broadband connectivity.”

“All Americans – regardless of where they live – deserve access to high-speed Internet,” CAN Execute Director Richard T. Cullen announced in a release “Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce. Congress and the FCC must stand with rural America by allowing Internet service providers to deliver broadband via white spaces spectrum.”

The organization includes Microsoft, the National Rural Education Association, the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition, the Wisconsin Economic Development Association, Alaska Communications, Axiom, the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communities Corporation, the American Pain Relief Institute and HTS Ag.

The group has also launched “local coalitions” in Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

READ MORE: Tying Telehealth to Better Rural Health Outcomes

Part of CAN’s platform focuses on the development of so-called “TV white spaces spectrum” for long-range wireless use. White space is defined as unused UHV television band spectrum below the 700 MHz frequency range that enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees.

Microsoft included TV white spaces spectrum in its five-year plan, unveiled last July, to boost broadband access in rural America. The 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.

“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 company announced in its 52-page white paper laying out the plan. “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.”

The strategy also caught the attention of Congress. In August, 43 members of Congress wrote a letter urging the FCC to open up TV white space spectrum for telehealth and other uses.

“We believe that the television white spaces (TVWS) have strong potential to revolutionize broadband internet accessibility in rural areas,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in a press release accompanying the letter. “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.”

READ MORE: FCC Project Looks to Tie Broadband, Telehealth to Better Cancer Care

Advocates argue that the “digital divide” prevents many rural Americans from accessing specialty services, as well as connecting with their healthcare providers in between regular visits to coordinate and manage care and improve their health and wellness. One recent study also linked low broadband access to reductions in patient portal use and health equity.

“Telemedicine could collectively save lives and millions of dollars annually for underserved patients and rural hospitals that pay up to three times more for broadband than their urban counterparts,” CAN states on its website. “Broadband allows patients, regardless of where they live, to access specialists and benefit from advanced monitoring services that would normally require hours of travel for patients or their providers.”

Just last month, the FCC made a strong move toward expanding broadband access by voting to increase the $400 million cap on the Rural Health Care Program, which offers funding and support for rural broadband projects. The agency voted to apply all unspent funds from previous years to cover additional FY 2017 expenses and begin work on a new formula adjust the cap in coming years.

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