Rural broadband and telehealth critical to America's COVID-19 response
© iStock

The spread of COVID-19 has presented many immense challenges for the nation, strained health care systems and left millions of Americans fearful and uncertain about their health care options and outlook.

Many American patients, especially those who do not have COVID-19 but are elderly or managing acute or long-term health challenges, would be better off avoiding crowded and overwhelmed facilities. As such, telehealth can play a vital role in keeping more Americans healthy and easing the stress on the capacity-strained health care system.

Recognizing the role telehealth can play in reducing patients’ potential exposure and helping reduce capacity burdens on health care facilities, Congress cleared barriers to greater usage of telehealth solutions in the early stages of its response to the crisis.

ADVERTISEMENT

The easement of these regulatory barriers will help many seniors with conditions that require monitoring but who would be better off avoiding frequent in-person visits to a health care facility, pursue telehealth alternatives.

Yet for many of the Americans who may most benefit from telehealth solutions, including seniors, veterans and those with pre-existing conditions, the current situation has put the spotlight on the impact of the digital divide that leaves more than 17 million Americans in rural areas without access to broadband internet.

A lack of broadband connectivity can limit options and strain resources in a crisis, highlighting the importance of completely eliminating the digital divide.

As Congress considers and advances relief packages to address the many-faceted challenges of defeating COVID-19, solutions to boost the pace and scale of investment in broadband deployments must be seen as a critical component of safeguarding the health of the nation.

Before the escalation of the coronavirus crisis, the administration made commendable progress and began to take positive steps to expand broadband connectivity, particularly by helping to support the culture for action on rural broadband at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, has demonstrated a particularly noteworthy commitment to supporting innovation and hybrid network deployments — components that are vital to increasing the pace, scale and cost-effectiveness of broadband deployments in rural areas.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Pai demonstrated leadership to keep Americans with broadband connectivity online.

Last month, the commission unanimously adopted a rulemaking procedure, advanced by Pai, to support TV white space technology, a critical rural broadband innovation particularly well-suited to rural broadband deployments in sparsely populated areas with challenging topographical features, like dense tree canopies.

This technology can increase the pace and cost-effectiveness of broadband deployments in rural areas. An analysis by Boston Consulting Group found a mixed-technology approach that includes TV white space can reduce the cost of bridging the digital divide by as much as 80 percent.

The FCC’s vote to clear regulatory barriers to broadband innovation to help tackle the digital divide drew support from a broad base of organizations, businesses and policymakers. The Commission should move swiftly to finalize and implement these new rules before the year-end.

In addition, the FCC will start the process later this year of administering the first phase of an unprecedented $20 billion investment in rural broadband deployments through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

RDOF can meaningfully move the needle for rural America and expand access to telehealth solutions – but must be administered with a technology-neutral approach that can maximize the scale and reach of these dollars through hybrid networks.

The importance of maximizing resources to tackle the digital divide by supporting hybrid network solutions should also be taken to heart at USDA, where the department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is making important investments in rural broadband deployments but too often favoring wireline-only projects.

Congress can build on the promise of RDOF, as well as help broadband connectivity and the telehealth solutions it supports to ease the strain on rural health care systems, by ensuring stimulus resources can be directed toward broadband buildouts in unserved and underserved communities on a quick time scale.

With continued dedication and the right leadership on these issues, we can make tremendous progress in bridging the digital divide — a pre-existing necessity underscored in its urgency by the coronavirus crisis.

Richard T. Cullen is the executive director of Connect Americans Now.