In a 3-2 vote along party lines on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission reversed “net neutrality” rules that had been in place since 2015.
The change theoretically could affect technology used by senior care providers, with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai singling out home health monitoring specifically. However, there is much doubt and debate about the possible outcomes of lifting net neutrality.
Net neutrality regulations prohibited internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast from throttling internet speeds or prohibiting access to websites or services. They also restricted the use of internet “fast lanes” by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. That has meant that, since 2015, the internet has been regulated like utilities, such as gas, telephone and water.
Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been a strong proponent of “light touch” regulations regarding the internet. He originally voted against the net neutrality rules in 2015 as a commissioner. He believes net neutrality represents more heavy government intervention that has contributed to the slow development of internet infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.
Before today’s vote, Pai said, “We are helping consumers and promoting competition.”
Additionally, Chairman Pai believes paid prioritization, which is now allowed, could help speed up the development of home health monitoring and other services, the Los Angeles Times reported. The idea is that companies could pay to have ISPs transport data at higher speeds for particular services, such as those related to monitoring seniors’ health.
However, Scott Moody, founder of K4Connect, believes Pai and others are grasping for straws or simply naive. K4Connect is a technology company that provides a variety of services to senior living residents and staff, including monitoring of daily activities and controlling smart home features such as thermostat use.
“With respect to home health care, that is much more restrained by other regulations and business models than anything to do with the internet,” said Moody.
Even if ISPs implement paid prioritization, it’s unclear how much it will even help if at all.
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“For remote health monitoring and Internet of Things, for example, very fast internet bandwidth/service is not required,” Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at Aging In Place Technology Watch, told Senior Housing News. “There simply would not be enough data transferred at a constant rate to utilize it.”
Two FCC Commissioners — both Democrats — and numerous technology companies and websites have come out in favor of keeping the rules in place, as they believe it provides a level playing field for everyone. ISPs have reassured customers they wouldn’t block or throttle services, but they now have free reign to do so, though if they block access to a website, they must be transparent behind their reasoning.
And it’s not just everyday consumers who are the only ones that might be affected the repeal of net neutrality rules. Senior housing may face the prospect of slow connection speeds at their ISP’s discretion, or they might have to pay more than they currently do for faster speeds.
“Today, most of us are dependent on one provider and getting a great deal of our content from companies that control significant parts of their respective markets (ie. Google and Facebook),” said Moody. “It will be those largest companies that can afford to pay more, cementing their positions to the detriment of new ideas by the entrepreneurs and startups that have historically driven innovation in the U.S.”
Telemedicine could potentially face restrictions, according to Modern Healthcare. This technology requires a strong internet connection and the possibility of slow connection speeds may interfere with the usefulness of the technology.
“At this point, it is not clear what the practical impact will be, but providers across the care continuum should certainly to take this into account as they plan their digital strategies,” said Steve Elder, director of communications for STANLEY Healthcare. “Where before this would not have been a consideration in planning for cloud-based or IoT applications that rely on the web, now it is. Providers will have to know that they have the necessary bandwidth and service in place as they roll out these solutions.”
Still, STANLEY is confident that net neutrality changes will not slow down the adoption of these types of technologies, given the benefits they bring.
For their part, many internet service providers are pledging that they will remain committed to net neutrality principles. One example is Cox Communications, which has invested in home health technology and is a proponent of “smart homes” to support aging in place.
“Today’s vote by the FCC to remove the Title II section of the net neutrality rules does not impact our commitment to net neutrality,” the company stated. “We do not block, throttle or otherwise interfere with consumers’ desire to go where they want on the internet.”
The FCC decision now likely heads to courts, as industry trade groups, state attorneys general and other organizations file legal challenges to delay or prevent the repeal of net neutrality.
Written by Erik Prado