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Telecommunications Policies May Have Unintended Healthcare Consequences

In our April 24, 2014 Health Affairs Blog post “It’s Hard to Be Neutral About Network Neutrality for Health,” we discussed network neutrality and its potential impact on health care. With the new Trump administration, we are seeing changes to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) stance about network neutrality (NN) and other important telecommunications policies that may significantly impact the delivery and pace of innovation in health care. The FCC, under the guise of “restoring internet freedom,” believes that big telecom giants should be allowed to treat their business partners more favorably than other companies.

The FCC is planning to overturn the landmark 2015 NN rules put in place by former Chairman Tom Wheeler requiring that all online content be treated equally. In the last week of April 2017, the new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, announced plans to make network neutrality voluntary. Then, on May 18 the FCC voted 2-1 to move forward with this roll back of network neutrality protections. In our previous post, we discuss how the Internet has basically become a public good and should be treated as such with regards to regulation and laws. History suggests that the ideas of treating Internet access as a public good are not new. For example, there are laws preventing owners of essential public goods, such as shipping companies, bridges, and ports from abusing their position. These same principles should also apply to the Internet because through its evolution, it has become essential. There is growing evidence that this is true for health.

Reverting back to a voluntary approach to NN potentially threatens the well-being of many people, particularly those at risk for health disparities due to low income or rural residency. Not only does this voluntary approach shift winners and losers to favor large telecommunication giants, we are specifically concerned with several areas of health care being negatively impacted, including innovative solutions for telemedicine, health enhancement, and cost effective scalable sharing of health care data.

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