This generation's light bulb is broadband

Rick Boucher, Internet Innovation Alliance

Rick Boucher, Internet Innovation Alliance

To maximize productivity in the 19th century, artificial light was created to conquer darkness. Today, high-speed Internet connectivity overcomes distance and enables transformative changes in the economy and quality of life for rural areas. In a very real sense broadband is the light bulb of the 21st Century.

Broadband breaks down barriers to modern day advancement. In terms of commerce, it enables nearly any business to be conducted from any wired location. Physical urban proximity to customers and suppliers, which once was the norm for businesses, is now unnecessary due to the virtual proximity created by a high-speed Internet connection--the same communications needs can be met and business operations completed whether located across a street or across an ocean.

And this phenomenon of canceling out the distance factor reaches across disciplines. Telemedicine is bridging the gap between rural patients and professional healthcare.

The Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) asked the University of Texas Medical Branch Center to help explore the potentially life-changing (and life-saving) benefits of widespread broadband deployment. In a new report,"Benefits of Telemedicine in Remote Communities and Use of Mobile and Wireless Platforms in Healthcare," Alexander Vo, Ph.D, G Byron Brooks, MD EE, Ralph Farr, and Ben Raimer, MD, explore the role of telecommunications technologies in raising the bar for the quality of healthcare that Americans can access, particularly those in remote communities. 

The authors examine how broadband connectivity has enabled progress in healthcare innovation and impacted real-world patients. Mobile platforms like modern smartphones, for example, can be connected wirelessly to physiologic monitors worn on a patient's body or embedded into a patient's garment. These new telehealth-related possibilities have translated into observable outcomes such as improved access to specialists, increased patient satisfaction, improved clinical outcomes, less crowded emergency rooms and cost savings, according to Dr. Vo and his colleagues.

A recent survey of 530 parents, whose children received pediatric telepyshiatric care from UTMB Health, revealed significant improvements in the level of care received and progress made among patients. Nine out of 10 (88.5 percent) parents reported that telemedicine made it easier for them to access treatment by a specialist, and more than 60 percent reported positive changes in overall functioning for their children after receiving telepsychiatric services. Survey participants also reported utilizing the emergency room (ER) for the children's psychiatric needs half as much (50.5 percent) the year after being in the program, compared to the year prior to participating.

As mentioned by the UTMB study, remote access to specialists is extremely important for those fighting against chronic healthcare conditions, particularly if they cannot afford frequent trips to visit an expert. The ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) program in Espanola, N.M. illustrates the great impact broadband can have in fighting life-threatening diseases and ultimately on individual lives.

The ECHO program was launched to treat people with Hepatitis C, a potentially life-threatening disease that can lead to liver failure.  It's a telemedicine program in which--each week via teleconference--healthcare professionals like Physician Assistant Debra Newman confer with specialized University of New Mexico doctors on the treatment of patients around the state. While on camera for the eight doctors at UNM to see, Newman describes each case and receives expert guidance on treatment, drugs and lifestyle choices for her patients. She also is able to watch hands-on demonstrations in real-time and view PowerPoint presentations and high-resolution images in her office, miles and miles away from the training lab at UNM--all thanks to broadband.

When Newman took the position four years ago, the disease was spreading: Of the 34,000 people who had Hepatitis C in New Mexico, fewer than 1,600 had received treatment. This number has improved dramatically, and now, the cure rate at ECHO in Espanola is 75 percent, which is 25 percent higher than the average.

Similar modern miracles are taking place all across the country. But rural areas without high-speed Internet availability are missing out on today's technological capabilities, unable to implement programs like ECHO. Public sector initiatives such as Universal Service Fund reform, which would allow subsidies to be used for broadband, and private industry solutions like AT&T's (NYSE: T) proposed merger with T-Mobile that would result in wireless broadband access for an additional 55 million Americans are crucial to expanding network coverage to these unserved areas.

Being away from the big city doesn't have to mean being behind the big city--high-speed Internet access can go the distance. This generation's light bulb is broadband.

Rick Boucher was a 14-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He chaired the Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet and cofounded the Congressional Internet Caucus. He's currently the Honorary Chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and the head of the Government Strategies Practice at Washington, D.C. law firm Sidley Austin, a firm that represents large telcos including AT&T.

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