FCC Funds Telehealth Deployment through Rural Health Care Pilot Program
On May 7, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (“Commission”) closed its filing window for applications to its Rural Health Care (RHC) Pilot Program (“Pilot Program”). Established by Order in September 2006, the Pilot Program marks the first step for the Commission as it considers revising its Universal Service Rural Health Care Rules (47 C.F.R. 501 et seq.). By the institution of the Pilot Program, the Commission has embarked toward a new paradigm of funds-disbursement to enhance public and non-profit health care providers’ access to advanced telecommunications and information services.
For rural health care providers, RHC funding traditionally affords the means by which basic telephony and Internet services can be obtained at similar costs that urban healthcare providers expect to incur. The Pilot Program goes one step further in funding not only offsets, but also the design and build out of new broadband networks to achieve further opportunities in telehealth and telemedicine implementation.
For the first time, the Commission has opened the RHC support mechanism to fund the deployment of broadband networks and connections to National LambdaRail for health care providers. Under the Program, applicants were invited to submit proposals by which they were free to choose any technology or provider of broadband connectivity in order to enhance their telemedicine and telehealth activities. In turn, the Commission will consider the proposals and may fund up to 85 percent of the total costs of broadband deployment for successful applicants.
The funds for the Pilot Program will come from the Commission’s RHC support mechanism, which was created in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s charge to provide rural healthcare providers with “an affordable rate for the services necessary for the provision of telemedicine and instruction, relating to such services.” However, since then, the Commission’s resulting RHC support mechanism has been chronically underutilized. To help this underutilization, the Commission now estimates that approximately $55-60 million will be available under the Pilot Program.
The Commission’s confessed purpose of the Pilot Program is to provide information and “lay the foundation for a future rulemaking proceeding that will explore permanent rules to enhance access to advanced services for public and non-profit healthcare providers.” In fact, there is currently an open proceeding seeking comment on further modification to the RHC support mechanism. The Commission’s Pilot Program opens the door to not only how the Pilot Program will be implemented, but also what will be the Commission’s next steps to address universal service support for rural health care providers generally.