Net neutrality changed the digital landscape for millions of Americans, specifically physicians and health care professionals, but these changes may diminish due to the repeal of net neutrality. In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the net neutrality rules set in place by the Obama Administration in 2015, and on June 11, 2018, net neutrality was officially repealed leaving many questions for Americans. Previously, most professionals were unfazed by the net neutrality rules, and many are still unaware of the positive impact net neutrality had in areas of the health care profession, such as telemedicine and technology education since it passed in 2015. Despite these technological advancements, many doctors still do not understand net neutrality or the effect the repeal could have on their practice or their financial bottom lines.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Spectrum are required to handle all data equally. The previous net neutrality rules protected against blocking, throttling and prioritization — meaning ISPs were not able to slow down or block some websites but speed up others. Net neutrality required all websites to load at equal speeds and treated all online content fairly. It also protected the consumer from paying more for slower internet speeds. In other words, all internet users were on a level playing field with the same rights to equally fast internet, and all websites were available at the same speed and quality.
What does life look like without net neutrality rules?
Without net neutrality, non-profit and educational websites and databases could be de-prioritized in lieu of commercial websites, meaning the importance of educational materials and research would be left up to the internet service providers. Allowing ISPs the ability to decide the importance of internet content leaves the potential for the medical and academic community to suffer because their content could potentially load at slower speeds or worse, blocked. Additionally, slower internet speeds will affect the ability to live-stream, upload and download promptly. Finally, many worry ISPs could offer multiple plans with different options on internet speed, leaving consumers paying more for high-speed internet. Overall, a divide will form between those who can afford faster internet service options and those who are stuck with slower bandwidth.
What does this mean for physicians?
For physicians and health care professionals, the repeal of net neutrality leaves the potential for devastating effects. First, medical professionals could be forced to pay significantly more for high-speed internet capable of downloading, uploading, sending and receiving digital medical records. Also, all the advancements made in telemedicine could become stagnant. Despite recent advancements, the future of telemedicine remains uncertain even if a physician can afford the high-speed internet to treat patients, many patients may not be able to afford the high-speed internet capable of live-streaming with their physician. Additionally, the repeal could be detrimental for physicians practicing in rural areas or with patients living in rural areas reliant on telemedicine.
Likewise, educational endeavors could suffer a significant impact. It could cost more for high-speed internet capable of downloading and uploading medical books and research vital to medical education, leaving medical students with the potential for an increase in tuition. Physicians could find it harder to stay up-to-date on the most recent research and studies in their field if educational and non-profit websites become overshadowed by commercial websites paying ISPs. Finally, the competition created between commercial websites and educational and non-profit websites will hinder and slow-down research. Overall, net neutrality created a level playing field on the internet making it possible for technological advancements that empower physicians with the education and tools they need to best care for their patients.
What can the medical community do now?
As of right now, ISPs have not changed their services despite the repeal of the net neutrality rules. In fact, many ISPs have publically stated they will not block or throttle but have left open the potential to charge more for some data transportation. On the contrary, just because an ISP publically states it will continue as if net neutrality is still in place does not mean it is locked into obeying that standard. As time goes on without net neutrality, look out for changes with ISPs. Many predict the changes will start small and add up over time.
How can you make a difference?
The U.S. Senate voted to reinstate the net neutrality rules repealed in December. The legislation is currently in the U.S. House of Representatives where it is given little hope of advancing. Contact your district’s representative and express your concerns over the end of net neutrality and the effects it will have on physicians and health care professionals.