Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Poor rural broadband access, faulty FCC data maps, limit federal telehealth plan's potential to help

"With the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rolling out its Rural Action Plan last week, there has been much focus on the implementation of telehealth as a solution to rural health care," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. But lack of broadband access limits the $30 million plan's potential to help.

"While telehealth was gaining ground in some areas before the pandemic, it exploded in the months following the start of the pandemic. Since then, all eyes have turned to telehealth visits as a way to solve the problem of dwindling numbers of healthcare workers in rural areas and to bring specialty providers to rural areas," Carey reports. "But some rural officials argue telehealth isn’t much of a solution if rural residents don’t have access to the broadband internet services that their urban counterparts do. While government officials and companies throw equipment and money into telehealth, what’s really needed rural officials say, is rollout of rural broadband infrastructure."

There are three major obstacles to telehealth access, according to Kyle Kopko, director for The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The first is getting access to the technology, like smartphones or tablets, he told Carey. Having consistent broadband access and being able to afford to pay for it are the other two. 

Another problem, he told Carey, is that the Federal Communications Commission falsely says that 98 percent of the nation has access to broadband. "In fact, a study on broadband availability in Pennsylvania by researchers at Penn State, released in 2019, found that while the FCC says that 100 percent of Pennsylvania has access to broadband connectivity, zero counties in the state (yes, zero) had reliable and consistent broadband access for at least half of their residents," Carey reports.

"Other roadblocks to getting more widespread broadband access include state laws that prohibit municipalities from operating or installing broadband," Carey reports. "According to BroadbandNow, an internet service that helps consumer find and compare Internet service providers, more than 20 states have laws banning municipal broadband."

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