‘National Purposes’ Aspect of National Broadband Plan Aims For Bold Actions Without Much Spending

Broadband's Impact, FCC, National Broadband Plan, Privacy, Smart Grid, Transparency March 15th, 2010

, Deputy Editor, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2010 – Blair Levin, head of the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband plan and the “national purposes” team at the agency previewed key points from the upcoming national broadband plan.

The object of the plan, they said, is not just to expand broadband networks, but to enable the creation of applications and innovations built upon that network. The six primary objective areas presented were healthcare, education, energy, civic engagement, economic expansion, and public safety.

Healthcare innovation could be poised to offer some of the greatest cost savings to Americans and many of these applications already exist they simply need a network to work over, said the team.

According to Health Care Director Dr. Mohit Kaushal, over the next 15 to 25 years, the total cost savings from electronic health records and remote monitoring could be $700 billion.

However, the U.S. ranks in the bottom half of health IT metrics. That disparity can be attributed to outdated regulation, insufficient connectivity, and poorly aligned economic incentives, said the team.

To solve these problems the FCC recommended pilot programs created to show the cost savings of remote monitoring and other telehealth initiatives. Simplification of the regulatory process is also needed for medical and telecommunications device manufacturers – including cooperation between the FCC and FDA over medical devices that use communications technology. To encourage the use of electronic health records, the team recommended that patients have access to and control use of their data.

Additionally, said the team, the rural healthcare program needs to be upgraded in the following ways:

  • Subsidize ongoing broadband costs for delivery locations;
  • Subsidize network deployment to delivery locations where existing networks are insufficient;
  • Expand the definition of eligible providers; and
  • Require participating institutions to meet outcomes-based performance measures.

In the field of education, many students already benefit from distance learning and access to a wide range of online databases and the ability to connect with scholars from around the globe. But expanded network connectivity is still needed.

According to a pilot program conducted by students at Carnegie Mellon University, students who took a hybrid statistics course which included in-room participation and online course work were able to put in fewer hours of work but did just as well as students who participated in a traditional class.

The limitations also include a lack of digital materials for school children such as e-textbooks. School districts currently have no ability to buy an entire set of digital books to be shared by all of their students. Many schools lack access to high speed access, although simplification of the eRate program might help. An electronic student record might allow for easier sharing of academic and performance data.

The energy and environment sectors may also see massive gains from an expanded broadband network, the team said. The FCC is already working with the Department of Energy to create a nationwide “smart” electric grid. Such a network, advocates say, would will allow for better load management by the energy companies, permitting consumers to decrease usage.

The final three areas civic engagement, economic expansion and public safety each provided very specific and unique opportunities.

On civic engagement, the FCC sees the use of broadband as a way to not only save the government money but allow for increased transparency and participation buy the citizenry. Under the Obama administration, the government has pushed more data to the public via a series of web sites.

One of the most direct cost savings to the government comes through the e-filing of tax returns. According to the Internal Revenue Service, an eFile application cost 35 cents to process, while a paper filling costs $2.87. Currently, 42 percent of individuals still file paper.

Additionally, the FCC recommends that the government look at the use of cloud computing to reduce costs. Among the economic opportunities provided by broadband, the expansion of telework is well-documented. Public safety may also benefit from expanded communications tools and the integration of emergency 911 services with location-based software and more internet-based technologies.

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