The global pandemic is creating a new normal where every aspect of the way we work, live, learn, and play is changed, and one of the industries that will undergo the greatest transformation is healthcare.\nDoctors may never go back to pre-COVID-19 days when routine face-to-face consultations were the norm. The coronavirus opened the floodgates and put existing networking technologies to a test. While many service providers passed with flying colors by handling spikes in network traffic, COVID-19 revealed connectivity shortcomings that must be addressed going forward.\n\nTelehealth is the way of the future\nThe current healthcare model of having to get in a car, drive across town, sit in a waiting room to see someone is archaic. Over the past few years, I have interviewed many healthcare professionals about telehealth, which was starting to see some usage, although it was the exception, not the norm.\u00a0 COVID-19 accelerated something that was a \u201cgood idea\u201d into actual deployments although there is more work to be done.\nFor the University of Texas Galveston Medical Branch (UTMB), which consists of hospitals and emergency departments on four campuses, shifting 50% of its patient visits to telehealth video visits had to happen quickly. Fortunately, UTMB already had the infrastructure in place to provide remote patient care years before the pandemic, so its own network handled the increase in telehealth visits effectively.\nThe big issue UTMB ran into was internet access for patients. Telemedicine often lacks the quality-of-service controls that internal networks have, Mike King, UTMB\u2019s director of network and telecommunications, said during a recent Cisco virtual roundtable focused on internet connectivity during COVID-19. UTMB found itself at the mercy of carriers, and found that some applications fail more frequently than others.\n\u201cWhen you have telemedicine encounters that are only 10 or 15 minutes to start with, you don't have time for an elaborate setup of an app or dropped calls. That can fracture the patient experience quite a bit,\u201d said King.\nUTMB\u2019s CIO Todd Leach said it had to train its providers to make sure they became comfortable with the needs of telemedicine. A big part of UTMB\u2019s telehealth program serves the state prison system, with many of those prisons located in rural areas where internet service is spotty and where the available access devices are outdated, he said.\nAbout 20% of the Texas prison system doesn\u2019t have access to high-speed internet, and without it nearly 40,000 inmates cannot get telehealth services. UTMB is currently conducting a wireless internet pilot to enable high-quality audio and video visits with physicians for the prison population bypassing the need to wire costly networking infrastructure.\nCOVID-19 strained critical services\nCritical services were also put to a test during the pandemic, revealing that disaster relief can use some connectivity improvements. AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) together operate a nationwide network that supports emergency communications. Even with FirstNet\u2019s extensive disaster response experience, COVID-19 was like \u201ca fire, flood, and tornado in every city across the country at the same time,\u201d said Jason Porter, FirstNet\u2019s senior vice president who participated in the Cisco forum.\nFirstNet helped modernize emergency response when the demand for critical services spiked during the initial COVID-19 crisis. It worked with supply-chain partners to make sure first responders had enough devices, and it mustered auxiliary network infrastructure where existing infrastructure was insufficient. The network requires extensive coverage in remote locations for first responders, who need immediate access to data and communications.\nThe auxiliary support included deployables, a FirstNet fleet of 76 rapidly deployable units that can bring internet access to places that don\u2019t have it. This includes ground assets such as cell towers on wheels (COWs) and light trucks.\u00a0\nFirstNet sent out all 76 deployables for the COVID-19 response, but Porter wants to \u201cinnovate the fleet\u201d in the future by including other options like drones \u2013 flying cell on wings known as Flying COWs, which should be available later this year. These can broaden coverage in case of disasters, add capacity or be used to bring Internet to new places.\nExecutives from Cox and Verizon chimed in on the subject, outlining what service providers can do to create a more ubiquitous internet. In addition to expanding internet access and connectivity, forming partnerships to bring devices and content to the underserved is critical. Providers said they\u2019d work with the government to ease the construction process and lower costs to accelerate deployments. But, they emphasized, subsidies may be required to deploy broadband in areas where it\u2019s currently not profitable to do so.\nAccess to health and social services in the future will need to be continuous, said UTMB\u2019s Leach. \u201cAnd it can\u2019t happen without being continually connected. Telehealth applies in more situations than we've traditionally thought comfortable applying.\u201d\nThe global digital divide\nNo single company has the technology or the business model to singlehandedly close the digital divide. Industry collaboration and small investments in expanding connectivity options is what will make a big difference in people\u2019s quality of life.\n3.8 billion people \u2013 nearly half the worldwide population \u2013 lacks internet access, limiting their access to information, education and healthcare, according to Cisco\u2019s Inclusive Future Report 2020. Gaps in access exist not only in developing countries but also in rural areas and impoverished communities in the U.S.\nCisco called on tech leaders to direct their energy and resources toward developing solutions focused on global inclusion. This means creating broader access to healthcare and social services powered by cost-effective, efficient technologies that meet local needs.\nBringing the internet to underserved populations could lift 500 million people out of poverty and add more than $6 trillion to the global economy, said Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president, and general manager of Cisco\u2019s Mass-Scale Infrastructure Group.