When internet access is life or death: Officials visit Seattle hospital on net neutrality campaign

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Rep. Suzan DelBene, left, and Sen. Maria Cantwell speak with Peter Nelsen, a Harborview patient in Seattle who is recovering from a stroke. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Peter Nelsen wants to get back to fishing.

So he told some surprise visitors who stopped by his room at the Harborview Stroke and Neurology Center in Seattle on Friday. Nelsen is recovering from a recent stroke and he’s eager to return to his favorite hobby, fishing for king salmon. He’s on his way, thanks to innovations in medical technology.

Nelsen lives on Shaw Island, the smallest in Washington’s San Juan chain. The closest hospital is on the mainland in Bellingham, Wash. Despite his remote location, Nelsen received a diagnosis, transportation to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, and surgery within six hours of the stroke.

It’s critical that stroke victims receive medical attention as quickly as possible to prevent long-term damage. That’s why so-called “tele-stroke” care can be such a game-changer. Doctors at Harborview use video conferencing and share tests in real time, allowing them to reach a diagnosis and action plan faster.

Nelson and his wife shared their experience with FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Suzan DelBene — three of the most vocal champions for net neutrality. All three leaders have all been fighting for open internet regulations in their respective arenas. They took a break from that battle on Friday to hear the medical case for expanding internet access.

DelBene, Cantwell, and Rosenworcel listen to a presentation from Litesprite. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“For an application like Harborview’s, they can’t add a surcharge onto patients to pay for faster internet connectivity,” said Cantwell. She’s worried about “the damage that could be done to somebody like Pete” if net neutrality protections aren’t in place to ensure that all internet traffic is delivered at the same speeds.

“If he doesn’t have a fast connection or a small business that doesn’t get started because they can’t pay for that additional competition … you won’t see the next Redfin or the next Zillow because they won’t be able to compete on that level,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell has been pushing for a federal net neutrality law since 2017, when the FCC voted to repeal the protections. Before that vote, rules were in place that required internet providers to deliver all traffic at the same speed without slowing or speeding up certain content.

DelBene and her colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would restore the protections but its future is uncertain in the Senate.

“The American public wants net neutrality to be the law of the land and Washington D.C. needs to deliver that,” Rosenworcel said Friday. She was in the minority of FCC commissioners who voted to retain net neutrality.

Before meeting Nelsen, the three officials watched demos of technology-enabled medical care. Swatee Surve, founder of Seattle-area health tech startup Litesprite, showed how her company is providing care to patients and collecting data for doctors through an interactive game. Healthcare professionals also showed how doctors and patients are connecting via video conferencing.

Dr. David Tirschwell gives a presentation on tele-stroke care. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

But these innovations, which can deliver vital medical care to underserved regions, require a reliable internet connection.

“It just reminds you how important it is to get everyone connected and make sure those connections are robust and open so that we can get good healthcare to everyone in this country,” said Rosenworcel.

Washington state has enacted its own net neutrality protections and a bill that would expand broadband access is currently working its way through the legislature. But there’s still work to be done; 9 percent of the state population is underserved, according to the internet service provider database Broadband Now.

“Seattle is this great tech hub for the country and yet rural parts of the state don’t have the access that this urban metro area does,” said Rosenworcel. “I feel like if you can figure it out in Washington state, with telemedicine and broadband and keeping the internet open, there are going to be lessons for the rest of us.”

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