With the Federal Communications Commission on the verge of repealing net neutrality rules, there's considerable uncertaintyabout how the change will affect the healthcare industry, with telemedicine, particularly for rural hospitals, up in the air. Another initiative—the Rural Health Care Program—that the agency is slated to vote on alongside net neutrality on Dec. 14, may be a boon to telemedicine, as it stands to increase funds for rural healthcare providers to spend on virtual care.
Net neutrality rules stipulate that internet service providers can't throttle speeds or block or slow down specific content. The repeal of those rules would "deteriorate the overall quality of care, particularly in rural health areas and particularly in outpatient," said Robert Annas, COO of Eagle Telemedicine. "Rural hospitals will have to spend more to get the same or even better internet coverage than they do now, which will restrict the types of services that they can offer."
Even if those rural hospitals get some help from the Rural Health Care Program—whose funding the FCC is seeking to increase in a vote that has no regulatory connection to net neutrality—that might not be enough, said Mei Kwong, interim executive director and policy advisor for the Center for Connected Health Policy. "Are you increasing it enough to help every single rural health community center out there? Are all of them getting something?"
On the other hand, some think those rural health centers may fare just fine if net neutrality rules are repealed. Gary Capistrant, chief policy officer for the American Telemedicine Association, doesn't expect any immediate consequences. If anything, he said, "if the commission repeals net neutrality, it could be that the internet providers would feel better about making the kind of large-scale investment that they need to do 5G."