“In the old days it required a dedicated line, dedicated facility,” he said. “Now with the push to have universal broadband connectivity in rural areas, there’s a whole new generation of telemedicine and telehealth capability that runs on that chassis of universal broadband access.”
That’s a chassis that’s still in the process of being built. According to a June report from the Federal Communications Commission, 28% of rural residents lack access to fixed broadband; that translates to19 million people without access in rural areas, compared to 7 million in non-rural areas.
“The deployment of those capabilities is spotty around the country,” Sandy said, and universal broadband access should be a priority.
Providers seem to be heeding the call. Just last week, six of the nation’s broadband providers—AT&T, CenturyLink, FairPoint, Frontier, Verizon, and Windstream—submitted a proposal to the FCC to speed broadband deployment to more than 4 million Americans living in rural areas. Also involved in the plan, which aims for connectivity within five years, are the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies, and Western Telecommunications Alliance.
As broadband access increases, so, too, should rural providers’ use of telemedicine and technologies such as cloud-based systems, Sandy said.
“Given the magnitude of the mismatch between the needs and the demand we envision and what the supply will be, we had better figure out how to be more efficient and effective in getting people the care they need, and we think that telehealth and telemedicine is a very important part of that,” he said.