FCC Seeks Comment on Rural Telehealth Initiative

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or the “Commission”) has adopted a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI“) seeking comments on its proposal to create a “Connected Care Pilot Program,” a Universal Service Fund (“USF”) program to promote the use of telehealth services among low-income consumers, particularly veterans and those in rural parts of the United States.  Broadband-enabled telehealth services have the potential to shift the availability of critical health care services away from strictly brick-and-mortar health care facilities and towards accessible health care from anywhere.  However, the lack of access to affordable broadband creates a barrier for low-income consumers, particularly those from rural areas.  Therefore, the Commission proposes this experimental program to enhance digital access with the goal of breaking down those barriers and allowing all Americans to maximize on the benefits of telehealth services, such as improving health outcomes and reducing health care costs.  In this NOI, the Commission seeks comment on how to reach its goals of improving health outcomes through broadband access, supporting the connected care trend, reducing the costs of healthcare for all participants, increasing deployment in unserved/underserved areas, and increasing adoption of broadband in low-income households.

In its NOI, the Commission proposes directing USAC to devote $100 million to funding the pilot projects of up to 20 health care providers that serve primarily low-income populations.  These pilot projects would run for a period of two or three years, not including additional six-month ramp-up and wind-down periods.  The health care providers would be required to partner with at least one facilities-based broadband service provider.  Each pilot project could receive up to $5 million in funding to support connectivity to low-income patients and increased capabilities for the health care provider.  The Commission seeks comment on whether this budget and duration is sufficient to analyze the effectiveness of using USF support to promote connected care services amongst low-income consumers.  Furthermore, the Commission asks for comment on what the most effective and efficient method for distributing the funding would be: directly to the participating health care providers or to the partnering broadband service providers?

In addition, with regard to broadband providers, the Commission seeks comment on the type of broadband services and other communications services and equipment that should be supported under the program and on whether it should prioritize applications in which partners either contribute the end-user equipment or that propose new facilities-based deployments to promote deployment to these communities that lack high-speed broadband access.  As it has done with the Lifeline program, the Commission considers requiring broadband service providers to be facilities-based eligible telecommunications carriers in order to be eligible to participate in the pilot program to increase broadband deployment and seeks comment on this proposal.  The Commission further requests input on which parties should be responsible for reporting requirements: the health care providers or the broadband service provider partners?

Interested parties may file comments on or before September 10, 2018 and reply comments on or before October 10, 2018.

If you have any questions, or would like assistance with this process, please contact Dee Herman at [email protected], Clare Liedquist at [email protected] or Molly O’Conor at [email protected].