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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 22) – A Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Telecommunications Commission official says the CNMI is guaranteed to have a telemedicine program in its health facilities now that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has redefined the Northern Marianas as a rural area.

CTC executive director Adam Turner said FCC is anticipated to reclassify Saipan as a rural area, which should enable the CNMI to have access to a portion of the $400 million in annual telemedicine funding.

"Last week, the FCC came out with a ruling that they are going to reclassify the way that the universal service is applied to rural areas.... We’re still waiting for this precise determination but I’ve had conversations (with some officials) and it’s clear that we’ll be able to begin the telemedicine program using the universal service funds," Turner told reporters at the Governor’s Office.

Turner explained the universal service program is funded by a tax imposed on all telecommunication users throughout the U.S.

Proceeds of this tax program are used to finance telecommunication projects in schools and libraries as well as medical projects such as telemedicine.

The universal service program was introduced in the CNMI in 1998. However, FCC then classified Saipan as an urban area while the islands of Rota and Tinian are rural areas.

Since Saipan is considered urban, the telemedicine was limited between Saipan and the two islands.

What the government originally wanted was for the CNMI to have access to telemedicine programs in Hawaii, Guam, California and other parts of the U.S. for medical purposes.

"The way they did it is they named Saipan as an urban area. Rota and Tinian as rural so the telemedicine program became available only between Rota and Saipan, being the urban area," said Turner.

"(But we want to do) most of our telemedicine activities with Hawaii, Guam and California. But we couldn’t do that so we petitioned the FCC two years ago to get the definition changed, to reclassify Saipan as a rural area within a rural sort of metropolitan area," he added.

The CTC official said once the CNMI telemedicine program with other states is working, it will speed up the process of accessing medical files and procedures, as well as provide technical training to medical staff without leaving the islands.

In a statement, the FCC said its decision to redefine what constitutes a rural area is aimed to better target small towns and villages while still maintaining a focus on the areas with the most need.

"...FCC has reclassified what constitutes a rural location in regards to telemedicine funding. This might mean dollars for the CNMI in subsidized costs between Saipan, Guam, Hawaii and the mainland," Turner said.

"CNMI will still have to develop programs and specific use plans for funds. This might require the purchase of equipment and other capital items to utilize telemedical practices.... We have worked for several years to get this done. Now, we can focus on developing the programs," he added.

December 22, 2004

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