Once again Nevada’s Washington representatives are having to resort to legislation to force the slothful federal land agencies to more quickly allow the public access to rights of way across putatively public lands.
Earlier this month Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller added two amendments to the Making Opportunities for Broadband Investment and Limiting Excessive and Needless Obstacles to Wireless Act (S. 2555) — yes, to those acronym-enamored lawmakers and their staffs it is known as the MOBILE NOW Act.
Heller’s principal effort is to establish what he calls a “shot clock” that gives federal land agencies 270 days in which to decide on approval or disapproval of applications for easements or rights of way for fiber optics lines to improve broadband access in rural areas of Nevada and across the West.
At a meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, Heller said of his “shot clock” proposal, “It’s a huge win for rural America, especially rural Nevada. It’s going to go a long way to helping my state — which as you know is controlled 85 percent by federal lands.
“Let me give you a couple of examples,” he said. “First example is the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration) awarded a grant years ago to get fiber out to seven of Nevada’s rural hospitals. You know it has taken years, years to get that out there primarily because of how long it took to get the applications approved by both the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That’s just one example of why this is so important.”
Another example he cited was an effort by CenturyLink to provide broadband service to a community of 300 just outside Las Vegas called Mount Charleston.
“It’s a recreational area and it attracts tourists and it also has a Girl Scout camp out there,” Heller observed, “but it took more than two years just to resolve service for the Girl Scout camp due to federal bureaucracy. Mount Charleston still isn’t fully connected, years later.”
He concluded his “shot clock” would make a big difference.
In 2010 the Nevada Hospital Association (NHA) applied for and received a $19.6 million grant for the purpose of improving broadband telecommunications among rural Nevada hospitals. With private funding the spending is expected to reach $25 million.
The effort is part of the NHA’s Nevada Broadband Telemedicine Initiative program, intended to improve patient care by eliminating technology disparities between rural and urban areas by establishing telemedicine — remote medical diagnosis — and setting up a Health Information Exchange to allow remote access to electronic health records.
In addition to rural hospitals, the network is available to public safety agencies, educational institutions and tribal governments.
Though Heller mentioned seven hospitals, the broadband expansion is expected to affect health care facilities in Winnemucca, Pahrump, Elko, Tonopah, Lovelock, Hawthorne, Yerington, Ely, Gardnerville and Battle Mountain, according to press accounts.
Back in 2014 the Reno newspaper already was reporting on the federal land agency obstacles to connecting the rural hospitals. The BLM finally waived its demand for an expensive reclamation bond to finance the restoration of the land to its pristine state following the laying of the lines.
The Nevada Broadband Telemedicine Initiative would allow the state to serve patients in Nevada with 21st century telemedicine applications, said Bill Welch, president of NHA. “The goal of our member health care facilities has always been to provide patients with the best possible care using the latest technology available in the healthcare industry,” he was quoted as saying. “We feel this network is the next step in living out that goal.”
Telemedicine allows patients in rural areas to “see” a doctor via video over the Internet, saving the time and expense of driving to Las Vegas or Reno to see primary care or specialist doctors.
Nevada law already permits this by saying the practice of medicine means to “diagnose, treat, correct, prevent or prescribe for any human disease,” etc., etc., including “by using equipment that transfers information concerning the medical condition of the patient electronically, telephonically or by fiber optics.”
The MOBILE NOW Act — to which Heller added his amendments — is being pushed by South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune and aims primarily at encouraging federal agencies to increase the airwave spectrum for sale to broadband providers to connect cell phones and remote internet connections, also a problem for rural areas.
A version of this column appeared a year ago in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.