Op-Ed

Cancer project also a bet on rural broadband’s future

McClatchy-Tribune

Picture a day at The Derby. You’re seated amongst more than 150,000 people. If you think that’s a crowd, consider this: It would take five Churchill Downs to house all the people in Kentucky who still lack access to digital opportunities that many of us take for granted.

More than 800,000 Kentuckians lack access to home broadband service, which represents nearly 19 percent of the state’s population. If you focus on high-speed internet service in rural areas alone, the share without access doubles to 40 percent.

Lack of digital connectivity carries extremely high costs, but few areas reveal the opportunities and challenges of rural digital divides better than health care.

Through our travels, we have seen firsthand the difference connected health technologies are making in rural communities. Broadband has the power to conquer distance. With telemedicine, we can extend the reach of care, making it possible for treatment, even hours from the nearest hospital.

There are many health conditions that benefit from connected health solutions, but now is the time to think about how broadband can help address one particular diagnosis that more than 12 million Americans face each year: cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans living in rural areas are more likely to die of cancer than their urban counterparts. In Appalachia, the picture is even bleaker.

Research from the University of Virginia has shown that between 1969 and 2011, cancer incidence declined in every region of the country except rural Appalachia. Lung cancer, in particular, is a major contributor to the high cancer incidence and mortality rates in Kentucky, and accounts for 35 percent of all cancer deaths.

Bridging the digital divide can help address this disparity. Why? Initial analysis shows that rural “cancer hotspots” also face major gaps in broadband access and adoption. As laid out in the President’s Cancer Panel Report, Improving Cancer-Related Outcomes with Connected Health, collaboration among those in health care, biomedical research and technology fields is essential to the future of cancer care.

At the FCC, we believe that both government and the private sector have roles to play in closing the rural connectivity gap.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Cancer Institute entered into a memorandum of understanding to focus on how broadband connectivity can be leveraged to help relieve the daily, unyielding burden of cancer symptoms and care for rural patients.

The first project to come out of this collaboration recently kicked off at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center in Lexington. Its goal is to build a demonstration project on broadband-enabled health that will target Kentucky counties that face the dual challenge of high cancer mortality rates and lower levels of broadband access.

You can learn more by visiting www.fcc.gov/health/cancer.

One such example is our Mobility Fund, which aims to expand mobile broadband to unserved areas. The FCC is investing $4.53 billion over the next decade in companies that will deploy 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today.

Another example is our Connect America Fund. Here, we’ll invest $2 billion to boost fixed broadband in currently unserved locations, like rural Kentucky.

Working collaboratively across federal, state and local governments and the private sector, the FCC is committed to taking concrete steps to address the broadband health gap in rural America. The Markey project promises to bring us one step closer to closing the digital and health-care divides.

In this race, we’re all betting on broadband.

Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Mignon Clyburn is a commissioner.

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