Healthcare may be joining the net-neutrality fight. The heads of the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance, the mHealth Regulatory Coalition and the Health IT Now Coalition last week sent a letter (PDF) asking the Federal Communications Commission to reject the most stringent possible rules being considered to guarantee net neutrality. The FCC is slated to consider approaches to guarantee the concept in February.
The policy is particularly relevant to healthcare, as healthcare services are increasingly delivered through networks—either online, or through mobile.
And yet despite the potential applicability to healthcare, many healthcare groups have sat on the sidelines.
Modern Healthcare obtained a letter in November from wireless industry trade group CTIA being circulated to healthcare groups such as the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. The letter asked for their support to oppose the most stringent regulations that would ensure continued net neutrality. But others argue healthcare benefits from net neutrality and should be lobbying the FCC for stringent regulations to ensure it continues.
HIMSS did not respond to requests for comment at the time, and did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Other healthcare organizations contacted for this article—such as the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and the American Medical Association—also do not have official positions on the debate.
The fight for net neutrality essentially revolves around the question of whether regulation should guarantee that all Internet traffic traveling over networks be treated equally. Without such rules, network providers would be free to charge more to heavy users of networks. Users watching a lot of video or downloading a lot of data might pay more for the privilege as might those transmitting the data.
Advocates for net neutrality say that the effectiveness of the Internet is based on all users being treated equally. Without such equality, or neutrality, network providers may discriminate in favor of large, established companies that can afford to pay and against startups or smaller players, exactly the type of companies moving into digital health.
In their letter, the healthcare trade groups favor returning net neutrality rules to the ones embodied under the 2010 Open Internet Order. At that time, the FCC felt that the rules protected net neutrality while exempting telecommunications companies from the most burdensome regulations. The more stringent approach would be to regulate the Internet under a different portion of the FCC's authorizing act.
The groups' letter argues that the most stringent regulations will decrease telecom companies' investment in their networks, leading to slower speed and performance. Healthcare is particularly interested in high-performance Internet; a doctor examining a patient over video would probably not stand for slow, garbled streaming.
Furthermore, they argue that shifting would create regulatory uncertainty for the burgeoning mobile health sector. The sector thrived under the rules set out by the 2010 Open Internet Order and changing things might disturb its growth.
Many observers believe the net neutrality debate is shifting in net neutrality advocates' favor. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to hold net neutrality discussions this week, with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) penning a Reuters op-ed arguing that congressional action to prohibit “selective slowing of data,” a key net neutrality advocate concern, would be desirable.
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