MCN Guest Blog

Connecting the Last Frontier

FCC’s regulatory refocus should shift agency’s emphasis to rural deployment 12/18/2017 5:00 AM

It’s in the most remote places that fast, strong and reliable connectivity is most critical — for economic opportunity, education and access to quality health care.

There is no part of our country more reliant on broadband than the state my company serves — Alaska. Nearly 200 communities here in the last frontier don’t have road access, relying on planes, barges and snow machines for food and supplies, and broadband for just about everything else.

An important step in promoting broadband investment is the current effort to roll back 1930s-era telephone regulations imposed on broadband two years ago. Throughout the country, investment in broadband infrastructure fell by $2.4 billion in the wake of this misguided decision.

Thankfully, the Federal Communications Commission under chair Ajit Pai is moving to rectify the situation by requiring internet service providers to be more transparent about their practices while giving the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s top consumer protection agency, authority to protect consumers consistently across the entire internet. This, in turn, would allow the FCC to sharpen its focus on connecting all Americans to broadband’s opportunities.

Pivot to Rural Connectivity
In doing so, Pai would be wise to focus on reviving under-resourced priorities, such as the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program. This program provides essential financial support to rural clinics, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and other nonprofit health care providers to help them obtain high-quality broadband connections.

At a time when the broadband revolution holds out nearly limitless potential to transform the delivery of health care via telemedicine, funding levels for this program have remained static for the past 20 years. Indeed, applications for support have exceeded available resources for the past two years in a row. As a result, services in many communities are being curtailed or cut due to uncertain or inadequate funding. The consequences are very real in these towns; for example, exacerbating the challenge of addressing the insidious opioid crises taking root in far too many rural areas.

Consider the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, a behavioral health center that serves the Alaska state capital, outlying areas and bush communities that are only accessible by plane. The more remote areas receive telehealth services, including treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse and mental illness, thanks to a Rural Health Care Program grant.

Without the broadband connections this program makes possible, community members would have to fly to major Alaska cities to see a specialist. Given the vast geography of my state, this would be like asking someone from Washington, D.C., to fly to Chicago for routine treatment.

There is ample opportunity now to fix this. The FCC can immediately increase the Rural Health Care Program budget by reallocating unused funds from existing programs. This would have a quick and positive impact in rural areas, without putting pressure on the overall fund size. Longer term, the FCC should reallocate more resources to this program to ensure critical health services are available to our most difficult-to-reach citizens and care can be consistently administered reliably, efficiently and securely with an eye toward safeguarding patient privacy and cybersecurity.

Bridging the Broadband Gap
Thousands of miles from Washington, the people of Alaska and rural communities across our nation await key decisions from policymakers that will affect their lives in profound ways. Earlier this year, Pai riffed on a famous Ronald Reagan speech, calling for “Morning in Digital America” to “bring prosperity and hope to millions of Americans currently trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Without question, broadband is our bridge to the other side. Rural Americans need access to broadband for education, jobs and health care, and they deserve a heightened focus and commitment from their government to helping achieve these basic objectives. With the FCC prioritizing rural broadband deployment and
reinvigorating under-resourced efforts like the Rural Health Care Program, our nation has a real opportunity to cross the digital divide and truly unite behind the many untapped opportunities broadband can unlock for us all.

Anand Vadapalli is president and CEO of Alaska Communications Systems and chair of USTelecom, which represents broadband companies across the nation. Image: Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, by George Burba/Thinkstock.