Rural Telehealth Expands as Companies, Government Seek to Close Connectivity Gaps

The FCC, Microsoft and others are providing the necessary resources to bring virtual visits to those in remote regions of the country.

As telehealth grows in popularity and availability, it has a lot to offer rural communities, bringing specialists and even primary care into the homes of those who may be hours away from the nearest healthcare provider. But before telehealth can reach an area, reliable, high-speed connectivity must get there first — a major barrier to the expansion of telehealth in rural regions of the country.

Fortunately, the U.S. government and tech companies alike are on the case. The Federal Communications Commission announced in mid-August that it had approved $100 million in funding for a program that aims to build out telemedicine access for underserved patients in rural areas. The program, called the Connected Care Pilot Program, was approved unanimously and will work alongside improved funding for the Rural Health Care Program, which will help to build out the telecommunication infrastructure necessary to support rural telehealth.

“The delivery of high-quality care is no longer limited to the confines of connected, brick-and-mortar facilities,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told a Senate committee on Thursday, Health Data Management reports. “With remote patient monitoring and mobile health apps, technology can now deliver care directly to patients.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted in her testimony that 19 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet and called for a revamp in broadband standards to match the speeds necessary to deliver these vital services to Americans in rural regions.

“Let’s not settle for the same broadband standard we’ve used for years — let’s decide to raise it to 100 megabits per second,” she said, according to Health Data Management. “Let’s ensure every rural healthcare facility has the speed they need for the newest innovations in telemedicine.”

Microsoft Makes Rural Broadband a Top Priority

The government isn’t alone in seeking to boost telemedicine availability in rural regions; companies are also getting on board. Most notably, a consortium of businesses and advocacy organizations called Connect Americans Now has proposed to work with the FCC “to ensure that there is sufficient unlicensed low-band spectrum in every market in the country to enable broadband connectivity,” via the TV white spaces spectrum, or unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum, mHealthIntelligence reports.

Microsoft is perhaps one of the most active companies in this space as it pursues its Microsoft Airband Initiative, a five-year plan that aims to use TV white space to connect 23.4 million rural Americans across the country by 2022.

For those who help reach this goal, the tech giant awards its Airband Grant Fund, recently giving a grant to a telehealth company that seeks to expand rural telehealth access in three states. While the company, Numbers4Health, started out providing telehealth services to schools, it has expanded to other venues and is working to deploy a “solution in partnership with internet service providers to help support telemedicine and improve healthcare outcomes in rural Maine,” according to a press release from Microsoft.

“Numbers4Health is working to ensure the citizens of rural Maine will have broadband access to critical telehealth solutions,” says Shelley McKinley, Microsoft’s head of technology and corporate responsibility, in the press release. “Their use of innovative technologies like TV white spaces will help improve healthcare access in Maine.”

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Aug 24 2018