William M. Silberg, Senior Fellow & Chair of CHMP Advisory Board. Bill Silberg is a strategic publishing and communications consultant
You can’t click a mouse or tap a smartphone these days without hitting the latest report on how high-speed broadband technology is on the verge of turning the health care system into the highly efficient engine of research and healing we all know it can be.
Some of this is market hype, of course, but there’s clearly real movement as well. Investors, entrepreneurs and established companies from tech firms to insurers are indeed pouring tons of money into the “mHealth” space. The smartphone medical apps market is estimated to have topped $84 million last year, and some analysts think the number of smartphone medical app users will hit a half-billion world-wide by 2015.
Hopefully, the US will have the high-speed broadband platform it needs to accommodate this potentially transformative mHealth trend. One clue will be the reception afforded President Obama’s recently detailed plan to spend almost $11 billion on a high-speed, wireless public-safety network designed to allow first responders and health professionals to transmit critical data, images and video during emergency situations. The plan, part of Obama’s efforts to make high-speed wireless available to at least 98% of Americans, also includes $3 billion for mobile Internet support of health, education and energy apps.
Obama, whose administration has put billions into efforts to speed clinician adoption of electronic medical records, hopped into the mHealth space during his State of the Union address, when he mentioned wireless patient-physician video chats. With the broadband initiative, he’s staking even more of a claim in this area, obviously part of his missive that this kind of infrastructure support is vital if the US is to “win the future” in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Will this initiative survive intact given the new slash-and-burn atmosphere in Washington? Well, the good news, at least as the White House tells it, is that the high-speed wireless proposal won’t cost the taxpayers anything, since the administration would raise almost $28 billion for the initiative by auctioning off a piece of the wireless spectrum now used by TV stations and government agencies. In fact, according to the White House, that would leave a nearly $10 billion federal deficit-reducing surplus.
Sounds like a winner, right? One sincerely hopes so, given the numerous examples of how first responders and health professionals routinely express frustration with the antiquated systems that must often use to get their jobs done. But it’s hardly a slam dunk. As a recent Washington Post piece notes, “the plan is ambitious and complicated and relies heavily on the participation of cautious television broadcasters who are loath to easily give up their greatest asset — spectrum.”
It’s not clear how much broadcasters would get for giving up airwaves in voluntary “incentive auctions,” the Post adds. It quotes an industry trade group as saying that broadcasters aren’t necessarily opposed to the plan; they just want more details on what they can expect in exchange for giving up what could be a highly lucrative piece of the ether just at a time when it could start to generate substantial revenue.
And lest the plan would get away without political tinkering, the Post reminds us that even as Obama was unveiling it in northern Michigan, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on oversight of recent funding for broadband programs, which totaled more than $7 billion in grants to rural areas through the stimulus program. “Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband, it is critical to examine whether the money already being spent is having an impact, as well as how we can minimize waste, fraud and abuse,” the Post quoted committee chair Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as saying.
As they say in the business, stay tuned.