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Leroy Jones, Jr. is the creator of Talking Technology with Leroy Jones, Jr.

December 2015 Archives

A Lifeline for mHealth

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"Computers and the Internet are on the cusp of making health care more personal, consumer oriented, cost effective, innovative, agile, and entrepreneurial."

That's the theme of a new report on America's emerging revolution in health care services. Dismissing the current health care system as "closed and stagnant," the report explains how improvements in computing and broadband power will radically improve health care quality for everyone.

While this vision, particularly as it relates to mHealth and smartphones, is on target, there's unfortunately one part of the revolution he overlooks: those unable to afford high speed Internet access.

That fact highlights an increasingly obvious shortcoming of the FCC's program offering telephone service discounts to low-income citizens. Called Lifeline and funded by the Universal Service Fund, this program has noble goals. But it has unfortunately become as outdated as the sole method of communication it helps provide for consumers.  

In today's tech-dominated, Internet-focused world, Lifeline only makes phone service, not Internet access, more affordable.  

Yet phone calls increasingly don't meet consumers' needs.  According to Nielsen, 31% of U.S. mobile users say their voice calling usage is "low." Year over year, calling minutes decreased for those in the 25-34, 35-54 and 55+ age groups, while reliance on Internet-based methods of connecting, communicating and accessing information are on the rise.

That 55+ group is especially important since they are the largest consumers of health care services and therefore could benefit the most from improved mHealth access.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn outlined principles that would modernize the Lifeline program to better meet the needs of today's consumers. These include covering both fixed and mobile broadband so that consumers can access and benefit from modern health care services online.  Additionally, to resolve ongoing inefficiencies and fraud that occurs in the existing program, providers would no longer determine eligibility of Lifeline participants. Instead, state governments would share the responsibility.

Lifeline's modernization shouldn't be a question of "if," but "when." And given the rapid fall-off in funding, the answer should be "now." Between 2012 and 2014, Lifeline's funding dropped more than $600 million (25%). The FCC does not have the luxury of pushing reforms to the next Administration.  A continued plunge in program funds would, by 2017, become truly catastrophic to the program and the consumers who depend on it for access.

The FCC needs to update Lifeline to reflect Commissioner Clyburn's core principles immediately.

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