The Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan to make broadband Internet connectivity available across the nation calls for significant revamping of the current Rural Health Care Program that offers subsidized telecommunications connectivity, including Internet service.

The plan also recommends expanding the types of providers eligible for subsidized services, including long-term care, for-profit facilities serving vulnerable populations, off-site administrative offices and data centers.  Current restrictions on for-profit providers exclude more than 70 percent of rural providers from getting subsidies today.

Under the FCC plan, broadband connectivity would extend to mobile computing devices. To protect against fraud and abuse, the plan recommends requiring participating institutions to meet outcomes-based performance measures to quality for Universal Service Fund subsidies, such as the criteria for meaningful use of electronic health records.

The current federal Internet subsidy programs are underutilized because service is not available or is not affordable even with a subsidy, according to the FCC. And bandwidth in many rural areas remains insufficient. In 2009, 82 percent of spending from one fund of the Rural Health Care Program supported Internet connections of 4Mbps or less, "which is a minimum for single physician practices that are using a robust suite of broadband-enabled health IT," according to the plan. "That speed is increasingly insufficient for the clinics and hospitals that are the major participants in the program."

The overall National Broadband Program has six goals:

* At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.

* The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.

* Every American should have affordable access to broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.

* Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government facilities.

* To ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder should have access to a nationwide public safety wireless network.

* To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

The complete plan is available at broadband.gov. The health care section is at broadband.gov/plan/10-healthcare/.

--Joseph Goedert

 

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