Many older Americans are looking forward to “aging in place” and staying in their homes as they get older. For seniors living in rural America, aging in place can be especially challenging because of the lack of transportation, the scarcity of doctors and hospitals, and fewer at-home services. In addition, the elderly in rural areas are more likely to suffer chronic conditions, such as arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Telemedicine may be one of the key factors in allowing more seniors to comfortably and safely live in their own homes. Telemedicine comprises a wide array of services and technologies, including:
- Email service to allow health care providers to communicate with patients and other medical personnel.
- Internet connectivity to provide access to general medical websites, as well as patient-specific information from remote locations.
- Personal health monitoring devices to check vital signs, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose levels.
- Remote patient monitoring appliances for medication dispensing and home fall sensors.
- Video teleconferencing systems in local hospitals, doctors’ offices, and patients’ homes to consult with specialists or conduct mental health sessions with psychiatrists.
Broadband can enable greater distribution and use of educational resources. Throughout the nation, there is a scarcity of capable math and science teachers and an unbalanced distribution of K–12 teachers among geographic locations. Today, 40 percent of U.S. public school districts require online learning resources because certified teachers are not available for traditional face‐to‐face instruction in those districts. Post-secondary instruction often is located at a considerable distance from rural residents.
Broadband can provide rural communities with the option for virtual instruction to fill the gap between educational needs and availability. Broadband extends the reach of instructors and creates economies of scale. A rural student may not be able to relocate to enroll in a college or university, or may find a two‐hour bus ride to school a hardship; however, with a broadband connection, the student can learn a foreign language, take an advanced placement biology course or enroll in a university class. Broadband access can provide the community with continuing education opportunities, including job and technical training to support a learning workforce.
Currently, the United States spends more on health care than any other developed nation, and that trend is expected to continue as the population ages. By 2040 there will be twice as many Americans over age 65 as there are today. Chronic conditions, which account for 75% of the nation’s health care costs, are increasing across all ages. As a whole, the country is expected to have a shortage of tens of thousands of physicians by 2020. Studies indicate that rural citizens also experience greater difficulty accessing quality health care.
Rural communities can bridge the gap between health care availability and rural patients’ needs through the use of broadband‐enabled solutions. These solutions, usually grouped under the term health information technology, can assist health care practitioners as they strive to serve patients more effectively and efficiently.
Many rural residents visit a variety of local health care providers and also travel to urban areas for treatment. Therefore, it is important that their health information follows them across care settings via their electronic health records. Greater integration of patient information can improve the ability of health care providers to serve patients by enabling multiple doctors, clinics and facilities to access patients’ prior health history and coordinate care more effectively.
Rural residents can also benefit from telemedicine. For example, remote patient monitoring devices electronically collect and send biometric patient information to health care providers and “store and forward” technologies e‐transmit pre‐recorded videos and digital files such as X‐rays and photos between health care providers. As we look toward the future, broadband technology can help to address the many challenges faced by health care administrators, providers and patients.
Contrary to popular misconception, agriculture is a technology‐intensive industry. Technological advances over the past several decades have allowed farmers to reduce costs, increase efficiency and productivity, and tap into markets that were previously unattainable.
Broadband allows farmers and ranchers to monitor market conditions, and makes it dramatically easier for farmers to collect price information for both inputs and outputs, thereby maximizing the profits derived from their products. In addition, broadband opens up new markets that were previously unreachable. Farmers and ranchers cannot only identify and connect with potential customers worldwide, but they can use broadband to address logistical matters such as gaining necessary permits and other paperwork to facilitate trade.
With broadband connectivity, farmers also can instantly access accurate, up‐to‐the‐minute weather information and plan accordingly. They can download software updates for automated farm equipment. Should their equipment break down, farmers can send a photo of the broken part to an equipment dealer anywhere in the world, minimizing both repair cost and downtime.
Likewise, if a farm is facing infestation from a particularly noxious pest, the farmer can send a photo of the pest to experts who can speedily advise as to the best method of dealing with the threat, minimizing any potential crop damage. These broadband‐enabled applications are especially useful in rural areas, where technicians or other experts might otherwise be required to travel great distances for an on‐site visit.
Broadband technology enables communities to more effectively and efficiently connect stakeholders with federal, state and local government resources. Broadband can be employed to distribute information such as regulations, public hearing schedules, agency forms and issue briefs. The Web also facilitates two‐way communication between a government agency and its citizens, a business or another agency. Users can conduct transactions such as submitting a permit application, or applying for services or grants. E‐government can unite stakeholders who are interested in the economic health and prosperity of the community. It can make agencies more transparent and accountable to their citizens. By breaking down the traditional “red tape” and communications barriers, the Web can empower citizens to become active participants in the governance process.
For instance, the Business Resource Portal, business.usa.gov, provides a single cross‐agency information and collaboration point for small businesses. This allows small business owners to avoid visiting multiple websites to find government resources, funding programs, forms, contacts, and guidance with respect to laws and regulations.
Due to their location, it is imperative for rural communities to operate cutting‐edge, public safety wireless broadband networks that are reliable and interoperable with other local, regional and national first responders. A next‐generation network enables emergency management personnel to send and receive critical voice, video and data information. In the case of a regional or national disaster, all emergency management personnel can communicate and stay apprised of the latest developments.
A next‐generation network allows public safety managers to track, in real‐time, police, fire and ambulance resources. While on‐site or traveling to or from an incident, medical responders can access patient electronic health records. When responding to a safety threat, police have real‐time access to criminal databases and on‐site video surveillance feeds via their handheld wireless devices.
Broadband also makes it possible for rural communities to implement next‐generation 911 (NG911) alerting systems. NG911 enables the public to transmit text, images, video and data to public safety answering point (PSAP) from broadband‐capable devices and applications. Likewise, NG911 notifies Americans about emergencies and disasters via a variety of mechanisms, such as local TV and radio broadcast alerts, messages sent to wireless phones within the affected area(s), notices posted on Internet RSS feeds and websites, and in various languages and formats as well.
Modernizing utility networks—such as energy, transportation, water and waste—with intelligent, broadband‐enabled infrastructure should be one of the top priorities for rural communities.
In rural areas, one of the most common implementations is the smart energy grid, which incorporates communications and information technology into the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of power. The smart grid utilizes broadband and IP connectivity to create a more efficient, reliable, resilient and responsive network. It aspires to intelligently detect and resolve problems within the electrical system.
Smart infrastructure, via a system control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, will provide the electric provider with far greater insight into the grid, and the consumer with more information and control over his energy usage and expenditures. A variety of other infrastructure providers—such as water treatment and distribution plants, wastewater collection and treatment operators, oil and gas pipelines, and transportation operators—also are installing SCADA systems in order to obtain more insight into their operations and control over their networks. A network‐enabled SCADA system provides remote monitoring and control of all areas from a centralized location, reducing or eliminating the need for employees to patrol the perimeter of the operations or visit remote sites.
At the same time, it promises to immediately identify security issues and abnormal operating conditions. In order to facilitate broadband‐enabled operations, utility providers will need broadband infrastructure to connect remote locations and central offices, and, in the case of distribution networks, the customer’s premises.