To connect mobile health units in the hills of rural New England with broadband access, policymakers are looking up -- all the way to space. In the next few months, roaming trailers that serve rural communities and ships that double as health clinics for Maine’s outer islands will be equipped with the gear necessary to draw broadband Internet from a satellite powered by Hughes Network Systems. The initiative is being led by the New England Telehealth Consortium, a federally funded group of health care providers dedicated in part to improving rural health care access. The consortium’s efforts also focus on building new broadband infrastructure, but the mobile units that serve many of the hard-to-reach communities in the area would never be able to plug into the grid. Instead, they’ll transmit data through the Hughes Spaceway 3 broadband satellite, floating 22,300 miles above the Earth. It will allow those providers to use remote monitoring, electronic health records and more in a way that they never could with their current technology.
“People will sometimes say: ‘Well, those are just going to be unserved areas,” says Tony Bardo, vice president for government solutions at Hughes. “With satellites, there are no unserved areas. We can serve wherever you can see the southern sky.”
The 10-year, $500,000 project -- which got some start-up funding from the states -- will serve mobile units reaching more than 400 sites and 2.5 million patients in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. And it could be the first of many, as rural connectivity is continually integrated into the health care reform conversation. In fact, the FCC announced last week that it would be setting some of its $400 million in recently announced rural health funding for satellite projects specifically.