FCC To Propose Spending $400M to Connect Rural Docs

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to propose a new program to help rural doctors get access to broadband in hopes of improving patient care. At the meeting set for Thursday, the agency will propose that $400 million a year from the Universal Service Fund should go to linking doctors and hospitals to the Internet at speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

Sources at the FCC say the program will pay for both building out better connections as well the monthly costs paid to a broadband provider. A more limited program that’s been in place for years hasn’t had many takers in part because once the connections were in place, it was still expensive to pay for the access from a rural area to the main Internet backbone. For more on this issue see our coverage of special access fees and reform.

The FCC’s proposal would change the parameters of an existing program to pay up to half of the monthly costs of buying Internet access for rural healthcare, as opposed to paying only 25 percent. It would also pay for dedicated connections as opposed to more residential or small business offerings.

The program would also pay for up to 85 percent of the costs associated with building out access lines and would allow more players in the healthcare market to take advantage of such funds. In addition to offsetting the costs for doctors and hospitals, the program would offset the costs to provide connections at acute care facilities, dialysis centers, as well as off-site administrative offices and data centers that support healthcare in the area.

If the proposal is adopted then the FCC would begin issuing funds as soon as June of next year. Given the overall push for online medical records and the current FCC’s effort to expand broadband to more avenues of everyday life, this program could prove both beneficial to people who live in rural areas, and also companies in the IT sector that want to see telemedicine expand.

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