5G or satellite: What’s the best connectivity for telehealth in underserved areas?
A convergence of communication technologies offers the promise of improved patient care in underserved areas with telehealth and remote patient monitoring. While 5G continues to build on its high-speed, low-latency capabilities, satellite internet has the potential to bridge the digital divide without requiring massive infrastructure.
Let’s look at the strengths and limitations of each and how they may reach patients now, and in the future.
5G sets the pace, but rural access is limited
5G mobile networks make their mark with unprecedented data-transfer speeds of more than a gigabit per second, compared to 4G’s standard of around 50 megabits per second. Latency registers at less than 30 milliseconds, about a 55% improvement over 4G.
Pushed into emergency use during the COVID pandemic, 5G enabled rapid connection of more than 20 temporary hospitals in China, where the technology supported blood testing, mobile CT scanning and administration of oral medications.
In more mainstream applications, adding a high-speed 5G network to existing architecture helps healthcare organizations establish digital care in the form of telehealth visits and e-triage. Wearable monitors connected to 5G collect and transmit a constant stream of patient data. Additionally, integrated artificial intelligence and machine learning convert real-time information into automated care alerts, reminders and instructions.
At the same time, however, 5G struggles with performance degradation due to inaccurately placed cells, lack of infrastructure in rural areas and cybersecurity issues with an ever-increasing array of connected devices.
Satellite branches out, but affordability creates barriers
Four major providers have launched networks of Earth-orbiting satellites capable of delivering broadband internet service to almost every part of the United States. Industry research indicates that 85 percent of satellite users will be in rural areas in 2022 due to its relatively simple setup — a receiver dish with an unobstructed line to the sky. There is a higher cost to set up, but for rural residents who qualify, the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program can help with some of the set-up and monthly costs.
Like 5G, satellite internet gained a foothold during the COVID pandemic. When deployed at medical facilities, satellite internet delivers connectivity for doctor-patient videoconferencing, transfer of medical records and images, digital messaging and email, and prescription processing. In a 2021 consumer connectivity survey, 87 percent of consumer respondents confirmed use of satellite-based telehealth applications and services. More than one-third of those consumers had not previously used telehealth.
Reported problems with satellite internet include relatively low upload/download speeds and high latency; however, providers plan to address those issues by deploying more satellites in lower orbits. Connection quality is another area of concern, with bad weather (e.g., snow buildup on the receiver) sometimes creating outages or spotty reception.
What does this mean for patient connectivity and telehealth?
5G appears on track to dramatically improve communications and remote services, connecting healthcare facilities and patients with new levels of speed, capacity and reliability. But challenges — namely, set up equipment and cost — remain in expanding the required cell infrastructure in rural areas. However, there’s an opportunity for satellite internet to be deployed for more equitable distribution of medical services to areas where they’re not currently available.
Frank Irving is a Philadelphia-based content writer and communications consultant specializing in healthcare, technology and sports.