In 2017, a time when the world is more connected than ever before, it’s easy to assume that veterans, active service members, and their families benefit from these advances in technology. But in reality, many active military and veteran families are cut off.
Less than a week after Veterans Day this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to restructure the Lifeline Program, which provides a discount on phone service and broadband internet for qualifying low income consumers. This is a timely reminder of how many military service members and veterans utilize these government programs. According to the FCC, 12 percent of Lifeline Program beneficiaries in the United States are veterans. That’s 1.3 million veterans.
As Congress and the FCC consider changes to the Lifeline Program, they must also consider new ways to ensure that veterans, active duty military personnel and their families have access to the technology they need to participate and succeed in the modern economy. A key challenge for reaching veterans in the United States is the limitation of rural broadband. According to the U.S. Census, approximately 30 percent of veterans in the United States live in rural areas. The vast distances and difficult terrain in these areas often hinder effective internet connections.
But there is another way to provide broadband to these rural communities in the form of television white spaces. While a typical Wi-Fi signal is often expensive and has limited reach, television white spaces use existing unused television channels and can cover distances over 10 miles while traversing the physical barriers that make providing reliable internet to these remote areas such a challenge. There is no shortage of resources provided by the government, nonprofit organizations, and corporations alike for veterans reentering the civilian world. But for veterans to take advantage of these resources, they need access to reliable internet.
That’s why groups across the country have worked to make rural broadband a priority and encourage the FCC to approve three of these television white spaces to deliver high speed internet. With the FCC’s approval, innovative technology companies and local broadband providers can provide affordable and accessible internet to rural veterans living on the wrong side of the “digital divide.”
The internet can be life changing for veterans and military families. It can ensure access to the resources and discounts families need to make ends meet. It can provide remote health care services that are desperately needed but otherwise unattainable. I’ve even seen it enable a homeless veteran to transition into high paid coding job. We must ensure reliable broadband access for rural communities, along with the benefits it will bring to those who have served and sacrificed for our country.
Rob Coons is co-founder of Veterans in Technology, a nonprofit organization that helps transitioning veterans find employment and experience in technology. He is also co-founder of Scout Military, a mobile app for service members and their families in Oregon and Washington.