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Originally published January 21, 2013 at 4:00 PM | Page modified January 22, 2013 at 1:18 PM

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Op-ed: Expanding wireless spectrum can address rural health-care disparities

By allocating more spectrum for wireless networks, Congress would address disparities in health care in rural and underserved areas, writes guest columnist Sailesh Chutani.

Special to The Times

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THERE are encouraging signs that the U.S. government is getting serious about our digital future. Last month, Congress held a hearing to examine spectrum-management laws to ensure there’s adequate wireless-network capacity to meet skyrocketing consumer demand for data.

Spectrum makes up the cyberhighway that allows data traffic to move on wireless networks.

It’s critical for government and technology-industry stakeholders to work together on ways to bring consumers next-generation broadband networks that have the potential to unleash transformational technological advances in health care.

Public policy should expand network capacity, both through additional access to spectrum and a speedy transition to IP, or Internet protocol-based, networks. Old regulations should be modernized in a way that helps upgrade our communications systems to all-IP so that all Americans can benefit from the delivery of 21st-century health care.

Lawmakers can allocate more spectrum for consumer wireless use. Legislators can also work to ensure the telecommunications industry is not snarled in antiquated rules. Instead, our elected leaders should embrace a regulatory environment that incentivizes private investment to build advanced high-speed broadband network infrastructure that bolsters technological innovations.

Last month, federal regulators took a step in the right direction to modernize regulations by establishing a task force with the goal of accelerating the transition to IP-based networks.

As just one example, my company has created a smartphone and Web-services based ultrasound-imaging system — an affordable and mobile solution capable of providing diagnostic services in hard-to-reach rural and underserved areas, not just in America, but also across the globe.

Imagine if a pregnant woman on a Native American reservation could go for her routine prenatal exam at a neighborhood facility instead of traveling to a hospital hours away. This would enable early detection of common complications in time for her to get proper care. It could potentially reduce the infant-mortality rate for Native Americans, which is 40 percent higher than the rate for whites.

Technology and the innovation that drives it have always bumped up against regulatory and policy restraints. For the most part, regulation has been relatively light in the computing and networking industry, which has fostered competition and encouraged investment in broadband networks capable of supporting it. President Obama himself recognized the vital role broadband plays in driving economic opportunity for all Americans as outlined in his National Broadband Plan.

To meet exponentially increasing consumer demand for mobile services, communications providers are shifting toward more advanced broadband networks like IP-based networks. IP technology enables the seamless transmission of data-hungry voice, video and Internet applications, which antiquated telephone networks cannot handle. They can do it faster and more efficiently.

Next-generation IP-based networks are already improving the lives of millions of rural Americans by facilitating the use of remote medical monitoring and diagnostic services, the transmission of real-time data between physicians and emergency medical personnel working in the field, and the option of online consultations for faraway and homebound patients.

Fast, reliable broadband connectivity can reduce health-care disparities that continue to plague rural Americans facing higher levels of chronic illnesses and geographical barriers to specialty care.

Our elected leaders must continue to nurture this innovation for the good of their constituents, entrepreneurs, and economic growth by allocating more spectrum, encouraging switch to IP networks, and adopting a regulatory framework that recognizes the competitive nature of the market.

Sailesh Chutani is CEO and co-founder of Mobisante, a Redmond based startup specializing in smartphone and tablet-based diagnostic systems.

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