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.
Last week's two-day FCC telehealth event in Detroit was a testament to the Internet's empowering ability to deliver health care. Start with this eye-opening statistic from the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University: A mobile pediatric crisis team with access to an on-call psychiatrist equipped with telemedicine capacity reduced the emergency visit hospitalization rate from 82% to 20%.
Other sessions focused on digital inclusion, advances in online health care and using the Internet to spur health care entrepreneurship. Doctors presented documentation of an Inpatient Diversion Program that used telemedicine to reduce unnecessary hospitalization and save Michigan's Medicaid program nearly $8 million in one year.
In short, the event offered the latest evidence of the Internet's potential for direct personal health care empowerment.
For federal policymakers, this bears directly on the FCC's misguided effort to begin regulating existing high-speed broadband services instead of promoting better forms of access. That effort has already sparked a noticeable pull-back in investment and deployment of new broadband services, which undercuts telemedicine's growth.
This issue is especially noteworthy since many of society's most vulnerable, including seniors, the physically disabled and those unable to afford their own transportation, have become dependent on telemedicine advances.
For federal policymakers, the common denominator linking Detroit's results and the ability of communities nationwide to adopt similar programs lies in the rapid deployment of broadband service. Few people understand this better than Jamal Simmons, who moderated a session last week on how broadband has become a "social determinant" of health.
For Jamal, tele-healthcare offers the chance for millions of people to finally gain the affordable health care access they need. But the FCC's decision to regulate the Internet slows down our progress to this desired end.
Earlier this year, he explained this issue perfectly when he called on Congress to take action on Internet deployment.
Noting that the FCC's expensive "utility-style regulations... would increase costs on low- and middle-income people," Simmons urged Congress to protect Internet users in a way that doesn't add billions in new taxes and fees on our monthly service bills.
Jamal is right. The Internet is far too important to allow the FCC to tie it down with expensive rules that we have to pay for. No one benefits from that, least of all those who rely on Internet-based solutions in healthcare.
The FCC was wrong to overturn rules begun during the Clinton Administration that have served us well. This week's events in Detroit should give further impetus to Congress to step in and pass a bipartisan solution.