FCC proposes higher broadband limits to promote rural telehealth

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The Federal Communications Commission wants to lift its $400 million annual spending limit on a program designed to support broadband connectivity for rural healthcare providers.

The commission issued a rulemaking notice this week, giving providers a chance to weigh in on the cap — which hasn't increased since the program began in 1997.

The FCC voted to raise that cap in December to support the increased use of broadband by rural providers, including skilled nursing facilities. The decision came during the same meeting as the vote to end net neutrality, a move decried by many as a threat to patients served by rural healthcare providers and to the bottom line of facilities who care for them.

The FCC wants to set a new funding cap because the current program outpaced its limit in Fiscal 2016 and was expected to do so again in fiscal 2017.

Changes could also give higher broadband priority to facilities in more remote areas while targeting waste, fraud and abuse. The proposed rulemaking, printed Wednesday in the Federal Register, examines the related Telecom Program, which has operated without significant modification for the last decade.

“By improving rural healthcare provider access to modern communications services, the RHC Program can help in overcoming some of the obstacles to healthcare delivery faced in isolated communities,” the FCC said.