The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted 3-2 to adopt rules that tighten oversight of mobile and fixed broadband providers to better protect net neutrality.
About net neutrality
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should be open and that all telecommunication companies should be required to treat all Internet traffic equally.
Under this concept, Internet providers would not be able to block or degrade access to specific services or websites. They also would not be able to create a "fast lane" for favored content that loads more quickly than other content.
Earlier this month, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler unveiled a proposal that would subject mobile and fixed broadband providers to utility-like regulations.
Details of new rules
The new rules reclassify suppliers of both fixed and mobile networks as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act. Specifically, the rules prohibit such suppliers from:
- Blocking access to legal content, applications, and services;
- Slowing down Internet traffic for legal content, applications, and services; and
- Paid prioritization that would create Internet "fast lanes."
In addition, the rules require service providers to disclose information regarding:
- Data limits;
- Network management practices;
- Promotional rates; and
FCC has yet to state how it will enforce the new regulations.
Health care stakeholders divided
Health care stakeholders appear split on whether the new rules will serve to help or harm the industry which is increasingly adopting health IT tools that rely on fast wireless connections.
Mike Putnam—senior vice president of American Well, a telehealth provider—said he supports FCC's net neutrality rules, noting his company has seen an increase in provider visits over mobile networks since releasing an app that enables patients to speak with doctors through the video functions on their phones.
Similarly, Matthew Douglass, vice president of Practice Fusion, praised the decision, saying "Reclassification of [Internet service providers] under Title II ensures that product features, pricing, and functionality are the drivers of innovation and choice in our health care technology market, unimpeded by whether a new company can simply afford to reach their customers."
In a letter posted to the White House website, President Obama also applauded the decision, saying it will help innovation.
However, Ryan Radai of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said FCC's plans to regulate mobile networks will be counterproductive for technologies that rely on high-speed Internet.
Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White described the rules as "unprecedented and dangerous." He said his organization "fears that hampering the Internet economy with heavy handed regulations will slow the development and expansion of new innovative medical technologies that rely on broadband" (Tahir, Modern Healthcare, 2/26 [subscription required]; Claburn, InformationWeek, 2/26; Gold et al., "Morning eHealth," Politico, 2/27).
The takeaway: Some health IT experts worry that the FCC's new net neutrality rules will hamper the development of new medical technologies that rely on broadband, while other experts say the rules will ensure competition and choice in the health IT space.