Alaska’s rural broadband capacity focus of federal telehealth initiative

Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 5:41 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The popularity of telehealth services has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet seeing a health care provider via video chat requires reliable high speed internet, something many people in rural America do not have access to.

Monday afternoon, the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a joint pilot project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission to assess broadband capacity in rural communities across four states, including Alaska.

“This is really trying to get information about what’s out there,” Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said. “Because there is a great variety, even within rural areas, of capacity about whether or not a community has no capacity, some, what kind it is. Whether it’s a satellite, whether it’s actually on the ground there at this point. So there’s a lot of differences right now. This part of the overall rural health initiative is meant take that, assess it, and see how we’re going to build that out.”

The program provides $6.5 million for assessing broadband capacity in several communities in Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia.

The project will span three years. Hargan says he hopes some information will be available in one year. However, it will be up to additional projects to use the information gathered to implement improvements to rural internet.

While the pandemic has highlighted the convenience of telehealth for people wanting medical attention, for people in rural communities, being able to see a doctor or specialist without a trip to the regional health care hub can save considerable time and money.

“If we were even going to just throw money, we wouldn’t know where to do that,” Hargan said. “And that would lead to problems within government of not spending money wisely. You put money in an area where its most needed and where the need is most acute, and to be able to assess where that is, about what kind of resources they have, is kind of the first step to doing that, at least in a thoughtful way.”

The communities in Alaska that will be included in the project are Aleutians West Borough, Bristol Bay Borough, Northwest Arctic Borough, North Slope Borough, Nome Census Area and Dillingham Census Area.

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