Broadband continues to transform health care.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband has the power to improve the quality of care for patients while saving billions of dollars across the system. The FCC kicked off 2013 by unveiling a new $400 million fund to support the deployment of broadband-enabled health care technologies called the Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF).

The FCC has actively worked to promote broadband access for health care since the original Rural Health Care Program in 1997. In 2006, the FCC launched its Rural Health Care Pilot Program to learn how to effectively support broadband health care networks, now funding 50 active pilots nationwide including the North Carolina TeleHealth Network (NCTN).

The NCTN continues to even the playing field when it comes to broadband connectivity in rural areas of the state with now 85 active sites on the network and more than 20 additional sites anticipated to join this year.

Dave Kirby, president of Kirby Management Consulting and NCTN project manager, explained that the new HCF provides large discounts for public and non-profit health care providers for a variety of broadband services and is a permanent extension of the pilot program that the NCTN has successfully worked through to provide discounts to current subscribers.

“Review of the HCF program is underway right now by the key parties involved in the NCTN,” said Kirby. “An initial review indicates that the HCF would provide a viable way to both continue large discounts for current NCTN subscribers and provide large discounts for an expanded roster of non-profit and public North Carolina health care providers including community health centers, public health sites, hospitals, and free clinics.”

The NCTN is coordinated through the Cabarrus Health Alliance (CHA) and has been subsidized through the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program. The new HCF advances and solidifies the FCC’s pilot work to further widen telemedicine networks, boost access to specialists for patients who don’t live near major hospital centers, and to improve the overall quality of health and care for all citizens. The new HCF also allows thousands of new providers to share in the benefits of connectivity while dramatically cutting costs for eligible health care sites.

There are currently three phases of the NCTN now in action.

The NCTN-PH phase for public health, free clinics and some community health centers now serves 61 locations; the NCTN-H phase for non-profit hospitals currently has 24 subscribed locations; and the NCTN Extension phase, which focuses on broadening services for many existing NCTN health care sites as well as adding new sites.

“Pending the end of the review of the HCF,” added Kirby, “we are hopeful that this new program will allow the NCTN to provide the vast majority of public and non-profit health care providers the affordable broadband services that meet their current and emerging needs to use networked health IT applications to improve care and lower costs.”

NCTN subscribers can routinely engage in high-quality video and audio applications, especially telehealth-based services and tele-education programs. Broadband services with high reliability, low latency, low jitter, and high security are required for most health care providers to obtain the full value from health IT-enabled programs. Kirby said the NCTN’s design includes elements to support these essential requirements – redundant links, encryption and authentication/authorization techniques, prioritized repair, hardening of single links, and more.

“These broadband demands are likely to grow over the next several years as more health care providers become more dependent on their broadband services for clinical and other business operations,” said Kirby.

To date, the NCTN has been a $14.2 million investment, of which 85 percent has been provided by the FCC for discounts through the Rural Health Care Pilot Program. Dr. William Pilkington, CEO and Public Health Director of the Cabarrus Health Alliance, said “the additional funding is welcome news in North Carolina where we have created a unique partnership that is capable of using these monies to rapidly expand broadband throughout the state.”

MCNC, in collaboration with the N.C. Office of Information Technology Services, currently provides connectivity services for each phase of the NCTN. In addition, private telephone, cable and telecommunications companies also have been contracted to provide last-mile transport services. By this spring, MCNC will have completed a $144 million expansion of the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN) to further boost the capabilities and bandwidth of the NCTN.

The FCC will begin accepting applications for the new Healthcare Connect Fund beginning this summer.

Those eligible to apply include public or not-for-profit hospitals, rural health clinics, community health centers, health centers serving migrants, community mental health centers, local health departments or agencies, post-secondary educational institutions/teaching hospitals/medical schools, or a consortia of the above. Non-rural health care providers may participate as part of consortia, but the consortia must remain majority rural.