FCC moves to create $400 million health infrastructure fund

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to push forward a plan for a $400 million fund to help health providers get high-speed Internet with a proposal that amends and builds off a previous program.

Laid out in the National Broadband Plan, the strategy is to create a capped fund to pay for network infrastructure projects at health centers where connectivity is less than ideal, such as hard-to-reach rural hospitals.

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The agency launched a rule-making process on Thursday to create the new fund, building off a pilot program it started three years ago that has helped hospitals and groups of healthcare providers pay for network upgrades but which has been been slow to get money to the people on the ground.

For thousands of providers, bandwidth remains a major barrier to adopting the most advanced health technologies. The problem is worst in isolated, rural areas where the market has not developed adequate broadband infrastructure. The FCC's health team pinpointed 3,600 facilities where connectivity issues had stymied the use of advanced health technologies, according to a count released in March.

Rural health providers often require costly infrastructure upgrades before they can  transmit digital images and electronic medical records, hold streaming-video consultations for remote diagnosis or and monitoring, and eventually even explore such promising fields as remote surgery using robotic technologies. These bandwidth-heavy tasks are impossible over weak connections.

"Without the broadband plan, I don't think that [health care network connectivity] would've been solved any time soon," said Mohit Kaushal, the FCC's first digital health director, when the National Broadband Plan was realized in March.

The new, permanent fund will seek to learn from the experiences of the pilot program, which was slow to allot cash.

When the National Broadband Plan was unveiled, the pilot program was 33 months into its planned 36-month lifespan but it had handed out less than $15 million (3.5 percent) of its funding, and committed less than $54 million overall, according to an official at the Universal Service Administrative Co., which implements the program.

The permanent program will combat the underuse issue by making more facilities eligible for funding and defraying more costs for participants, who in some instances complained of overhead burdens during the pilot program.

The FCC thinks the fund is ultimately a cost-saver, with officials estimating that widespread adoption of remote patient monitoring and electronic medical records could save the health care sector $700 billion in the next 15 to 25 years.

The agency would create the fund by redirecting money from other parts of the universal service fund (USF), a pot of federal cash devoted to providing low-income and rural homes with telecommunications services.

The FCC as well as many lawmakers and industry groups have called for a universal service overhaul to direct more money toward broadband rather than telephone communication.

*Update: The story was updated at 11:16 a.m. to clarify that the pilot program has been slow to allot funds but has gotten many applications. A previous sentence made it sound as though responses to the program were low.