Creative Orientation Means Success In Broadband and Telehealth

Benton Foundation

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Digital Beat

Creative Orientation Means Success In Broadband and Telehealth 

Craig Settles

Two years ago I wrote that community broadband builders have two options for network deployment: they could use the problem-solving approach or the creation orientation approach.

The problem-solving approach is typical when people deal with the government. The goal is often to make something go away. “Make my taxes go away.” “Make this pothole problem go away.” "Our broadband costs too much, coverage is iffy and customer service sucks!"

When community leaders treat broadband only as a problem to be solved, they likely shortchange the technology’s value. Once the network buildout is done, innovative uses for the network become someone else's problem.  Luckily, solving the problem of poor broadband availability has justified the investment for many communities. But how much money - figuratively or literally - have they left on the table in terms of subscriber fees, economic benefits, etc.?

In the creation orientation, however, a community builds or invents things that didn’t exist before. In the first year or two that the Chattanooga Electric Power Board offered broadband services, a group of the public utility's staff, community stakeholders, and regular citizens met every few weeks to brainstorm innovative uses of the network. With the creative orientation, you reduce tunnel vision because you're always pushing past the envelope of innovation.

The creative use of broadband in healthcare

nDanville, a public utility's broadband network, was born as a last-ditch effort to save a town on Economic Death’s doorstep. As tobacco farming died out in Virginia, Danville shrunk with the vanishing employment opportunities. nDanville was the centerpiece in a drive to bring new businesses and people to town, thus reducing the problem of unemployment from 19% to less than 10%. 

“The healthcare argument was always understood, but it wasn’t one of the drivers of the network at the time,” said Dr. Frank Maddux, co-founder of Gamewood, Inc, an internet service provider that joined nDanville. “People didn’t understand how important the network would become to healthcare or what applications there would be." The local healthcare community, though, got it. 

The Danville Regional Medical Center, now named Sovah Health, is the main hospital and the town's biggest employer. The center linked with area clinics to create a sub-network to which all of their services were connected. This subsequently created an economic engine that enticed businesses and individuals to Danville. "Come to Danville because we have excellent healthcare thanks to great broadband." Recently, Sovah started using telehealth to treat stroke patients.

But what if your community wants to take this orientation up a notch and create the first virtual telehealth center in your region? Maybe you already have a municipal- or co-op-operated broadband network, or perhaps you're starting from scratch. Either way, you'd be a trailblazer, transforming healthcare into a pinnacle of innovation. 

Of course, you'd have to resolve a lot of questions. How would you define your healthcare dream through telehealth? What are the benefits for your community? How would you afford to create the broadband infrastructure or the telehealth applications?

Creating a virtual telehealth center

By creating a "Center," I don't mean brick and mortar structures, but a marketing vehicle that wraps your community network in a "package" that consists of Web content, telehealth apps, services, and connected broadband infrastructure. This package would sell broadband services. The community is not getting into the telehealth business, but facilitating, marketing, and providing broadband infrastructure that enables telehealth to happen. The network becomes the marketing beneficiary of telehealth. 

This creation orientation produces various benefits.

Healthcare in the U.S. is so horrendous, you can get more "umph" for your network fundraising effort if you show how telehealth can transform healthcare. They may not know a gigabit from a giraffe but they invest in results, whether they work in government agencies, philanthropic organizations, financial institutions, community foundations, or others. People and organizations with money love to see their money create new things.

A key to this orientation is to involve as many people as possible so additional ideas continue to bubble up. For example, you can partner up with orthopedic surgeons using telehealth apps to manage pre- and post-op procedures. But business stakeholders might lobby for wireless kiosks (carrying the network's brand) at industrial parks and retail centers to help employees engage in preventative telehealthcare. Broadband powers these innovations.

The creation orientation instills a vision that is concrete enough that people are motivated to make it happen. When there is widespread collaboration, there is widespread ownership to ensure this telehealth center succeeds. This produces vocal telehealth supporters and paying network customers throughout the community. Always a good thing.

Craig Settles is a broadband business planner who helps communities get more from their broadband investment. His latest analysis report is Telehealth and Broadband: In Sickness and In Health, Pt 2an assessment of why telehealth providers and community networks should unit to drive broadband and telemedicine adoption.

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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