Is the Net Neutrality Repeal a Mixed Blessing?

As with all landmark reforms, the FCC’s recent rollback of Obama-era net neutrality regulations will likely have both good and bad consequences, especially for telehealth.

The positive spin is best summarized by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “By ending the outright ban on paid prioritization, we hope to make it easier for consumers to benefit from services that need prioritization, such as latency-sensitive telemedicine,” says Pai.

Critics counter that repealing net neutrality will have adverse consequences for rural health systems. “Just the thought of rural hospitals, which consume large amounts of bandwidth to run their day-to-day operations, being restricted because of budgetary considerations is troubling,” says Robert Annas of SOLIC Capital.

The net neutrality flap drew attention away from a separate FCC move that quietly expanded funding for the Rural Health Care Program, which helps providers get broadband access for telehealth. That may not be enough to offset the financial hit from tiered pricing. Most large metropolitan health systems will be able to pass along the increased costs to their patients – something that’s far more difficult for rural hospitals.

Some observers feel that the net neutrality repeal will also have grave consequences for in-home care. “Telehealth in the home could be severely curtailed as consumers may face higher prices for connectivity that would be sufficient for telehealth interaction,” says Mei Wa Kwong, interim executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy.

“Paid prioritization could be the difference between life and death for patients who require very reliable and fast connectivity for consultation and service delivery,” says one FCC spokesperson. Time will tell whether the net neutrality repeal is a major step forward for telehealth – or an albatross for rural hospitals and patients accessing care from home.