09:54 AM

Perry: Bridging the Broadband Gap


Keith Perry is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Carilion Clinic.

Keith Perry headshot

For more than a year, two words starting with a “c” have dominated our lives. The first is easy: COVID-19. The second may not seem obvious, but if you’re reading this on your smartphone, tablet or laptop, you likely have guessed it: connectivity. Our lives have revolved around both for at least 18 months. COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. Connectivity allowed it to move again, giving us a path forward.

Connectivity brought a new approach to events, school, work, health care and even visits with relatives. Though connectivity allowed some people to transition to virtual life easily, others found themselves falling behind because they lacked even basic connections to the internet. For communities in our region, that connectivity occurs most often through broadband. The resulting challenges facing us are two-fold. Many in more rural areas lack broadband access. Meanwhile, others suffer due to a lack of affordable access options and capacity in existing networks, even in urban areas.

As a health care system, Carilion Clinic has seen firsthand the benefits of broadband access. We’ve long worked with broadband providers to expand access and increase capacity. The future of medicine is digital. That is why we have a vested interest in ensuring our patients everywhere can connect with their health care providers no matter where they are.

In 2016, we launched a Carilion telemedicine program, connecting our nationally renowned pediatric, psychiatric and stroke experts to patients in communities from Tazewell to Lexington. It gave patients the option to have video visits with specialists from their primary care provider’s office, saving patients time and money needed for long drives to specialists’ offices. That was a good start, but it still required a trip to a doctor’s office. We later introduced video visits from your digital device. Yet, even that wasn’t possible for many because either a broadband connection wasn’t available in their area or offered limited bandwidth. We even began experimenting with technologies requiring less bandwidth that patients could use effectively with only a dial-up or cellular connection.

Then the pandemic came, and it put a spotlight on broadband needs like never before. For several months, we halted nearly all in-person visits. Demand for telemedicine soared, and so did our patients’ need to connect from their homes. Before COVID-19, we were performing roughly 100 telemedicine visits per month. Within the pandemic’s first couple of weeks, that number grew to 800 telemedicine visits per day – a 1,600 percent increase.

Looking beyond the pandemic, access to care and positive health outcomes will increasingly tap into broadband. Consider a future when patients meeting specific criteria can access hospital-level care through a “Hospital at Home” program, receiving a combination of in-person and telemedicine expert care from the comfort of their own bed. This is a complex – but plausible – future state for our region. Thanks to available technologies and evolving regulations, our communities could benefit from this type of innovation. The driving factor: connectivity.

To reiterate what many businesses have said for at least a decade: Our communities need more access to affordable broadband, and we need broadband with significant capacity.

We want to ensure access to high-quality, affordable connectivity for all Virginians. To make that happen, officials in Richmond and Washington, D.C., must continue their bipartisan efforts to address broadband inequities. In health care, we consider broadband access to be an equity issue. A community’s zip code should not hinder learning for students, prohibit entire communities from the option of remote work, or dictate someone’s access to essential health care. Without equitable connectivity, the digital divide will continue to grow.

I’m grateful to our region’s representatives in the Virginia General Assembly, who are diligently working on the issue. In recent years, Democrat- and Republican-led assemblies have prioritized broadband spending in the state budget. The 2021 General Assembly approved $49.7 million for broadband infrastructure grants available for the next two years. Additionally, Governor Ralph Northam set a state goal for universal broadband by 2028. Another silver lining from the pandemic: COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for expanding connectivity, highlighting the broadband gap in our region’s rural and urban communities alike.

Yes, our lives during the past 18 months have necessarily revolved around both COVID-19 and connectivity. That period provided a glimpse of our connected future. I’m happy to see COVID-19 subside, and I can’t wait to see what expanded connectivity will mean for our communities.