The FCC’s historic reclassification of Internet backbone as a public utility along the same lines as phone lines and public radio waves was extremely controversial among a small segment of the population. But for telemedicine, it’s a strict win.
Why? Because at no point was any telemedical startup or existing firm likely to benefit from the failure of Net Neutrality. Quite the opposite, in fact: telemedicine represents the trifecta of “companies that would get hit hard by Internet backbone providers looking to capitalize.” That’s because the data moved by telemedicine is…
• Critically Important to an individual’s health — it can’t afford to have hiccups or gaps.
• Large in Volume — a video conference uses twice the bandwidth of a Netflix stream.
• A New Technology — so any early issues with speed could cause a wholesale abandonment of the entire concept.
With those three factors on the table, it would be a complete no-brainer for an ISP to charge a significant fast-lane premium for telemedicinal data bandwidth, which would in turn significantly impact the financial ability of the startup to operate.
Of course, since the FCC ruled in February that the Internet was in fact going to be a public utility and thus no ‘data discrimination’ is possible, that argument is moot, right? Not exactly — the fight for Net Neutrality is far from over. Coalitions of Congressmen have banded together to fight the ruling using a variety of tools that range from simply overturning the FCC’s ruling to defunding the FCC so it can’t enforce the law.
If that were to happen, insofar as it affects telemedicine, it could be potentially disastrous, for all of the reasons mentioned above. But is neutrality the only alternative? The President did, before the FCC made its ruling, suggest a lighter-touch approach that would create a special ‘hospital channel’ that would automatically put medical data on a higher level of priority than business data.
The problem with this alternative is twofold; first, it actually involves more government oversight than the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules. That’s because every individual telemedical startup that wants to use the hospital channel would have to apply for and be given permission to do so. A startup that failed that application, even on a minor technicality, would essentially be instantly relegated to the failed businesses pile, no matter how clever their business plan.
The second problem is that even if application to the hospital channel were a rubber-stamp process, it almost by definition wouldn’t include all telemedical data. Telemedicine is a much broader field than just ‘communicating with your doctor.’ For example, medical records are starting to modernize to the point where they have video clips of interviews with specialists recorded right there as part of the digital record. What happens when a private citizen wants to download that kind of medical record through their smartphone? Is that data qualified to use the high-speed channel?
The end result of all of this is simple: Net Neutrality is a huge boon for the young telemedical industry, and most advocates for advancing the cause of telemedicine are glad it’s been ruled that way.