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Why rural residents need better access to care, starting with high-speed Internet

Did you know that “rural America” encompasses 97 percent of the US land mass? And, 60 million people (20 percent of the U.S. population) live in rural America.

This matters when it comes to healthcare. Because of the sheer distances, rural residents are increasingly isolated from reasonable geographic access to physicians, behavioral health professionals, outpatient clinics, and hospitals. This is a dangerous situation that must be addressed.

One way to tackle the issue is to expand telehealth services. But, that requires high-speed internet. And, in 2019 only 63 percent of rural Americans have a broadband internet connection at home. That’s 22.2 million people with no access to high-speed connectivity in their homes. Fortunately, there are several initiatives underway to tackle this problem head-on.

The Airband Initiative. Infrastructure and cost are often cited as barriers to support internet broadband connections in rural areas. So, in 2017 Microsoft launched The Airband Initiative to connect some 2 million Americans to broadband by 2022. Because it was going so well, a year later the group increased its goal to connect 3 million Americans in that same time frame.

One idea is to partner with internet service providers (ISPs) to use TV white space —the unused TV channels between stations. Amazing. Turns out, TV white space works without “line of sight” (which is often quite important in getting a good Wi-Fi in your home or a coffee shop) and shows promise around being used for the Internet of Things.

To extend its reach, The Airband Initiative is also partnering with the National 4-H Council, the National FFA Organization, and the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The VA wants to reach the 1.1 million veterans living in rural settings without high-speed internet so that they have appropriate tele-access to behavioral and clinical health services.

Foundation for Rural Service (FRS). This group has a Virtual Living Room (VLR) grant program to support veterans’ communities that lack easy access to VA hospitals and clinics. FRS plans on creating local spaces (in places like libraries, churches and VFW halls) to provide free access to health services for veterans. Did you notice how libraries seem to keep surfacing as a desired location to connect people and health care? I’ve written about my love of libraries, and how they can make a difference in healthcare; check it out.

Rural electric cooperatives: Electric co-ops play a vital role in technology connections. Now, some 100 electric co-ops are connecting homes, schools and businesses through broadband by leveraging existing rights of way and existing easements to install fiber cable. The economic importance of this approach is staggering: A 2018 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association study estimated that the dearth of broadband access for 6.3 million electric cooperative households resulted in more than $68 billion in lost economic value.

The Federal Communications Commission: The FCC now operates in Phase II of its Connect America Fund, and announced in April expansion of broadband internet services to more than 106,000 rural homes and businesses in 43 states.

As our population continues to age, we’re going to get sicker…unless we have consistent access to high-quality, cost-effective healthcare. These initiatives give me hope that we’re on our way.

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