For anyone who follows health care, this week's Congressional hearing on the Internet had disappointing news. As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai testified with evident exasperation halfway through the 3-hour hearing, "The FCC has impeded the IP transition, making it harder for carriers to leave behind the fading copper networks of yesterday and focus on building next generation networks."
The health care implications of this problem are huge. "Internet Protocol" is a revolutionary system for transferring data. Exactly two years ago, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called America's transition to this technology the "fourth network revolution." He enthusiastically talked about the "innovation, investment, ideas, and ingenuity" that IP would create and "spillover effects [that would] transform society...."
Nowhere will the spread of IP do more good than with healthcare. IP systems will allow the next generation of health care monitoring and treatment. The technology will facilitate medical specialists' abilities to give real-time advice in operating rooms a thousand miles away. It will give new hope and access to those who can't leave home.
But now this progress is delayed and so is the mass adoption of the amazing healthcare benefits that IP makes possible. Why? Because the FCC inexplicably seems to be turning its back on the smart regulatory policies created by President Clinton. Those policies, which helped drive so much progress and investment in the Internet, are one of President Clinton's great legacies.
Instead, as the hearing made clear, the FCC now seems focused on regulating tomorrow's Internet with rules from the early twentieth century. As Congress heard, these rules are confusing and legally questionable. The matter is now in front of a federal court, which will hear the case next month but probably not rule until well into 2016.
This is puzzling, dismaying and incredibly disappointing. We are delaying some of the greatest advances in health care history while Federal lawyers try to figure out how to apply an 80-year-old telephone law to a world in which a surgeon could be offering real-time help on a complex operation taking place in a different state.
The problems with this situation are so evident and so severe that Congress must step in. The last time Congress passed a communications law was in 1996, when Internet access for most people involved a 56 kbps connection over a phone line.
There should be no more delays to either health care or the IP transition. Congress, you need to take action.