Veterans could get caught in wi-fi crunch


Donald Trump’s nasty attack on John McCain’s heroic war record earlier this year had one positive effect — it shined a renewed spotlight on how our nation treats its veterans. As the Veterans Administration reels from scandal, veterans languish for months, or years, on waiting lists before receiving the treatment they need and old systems for claims and benefits creak under the weight of the massive influx of post-Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Virtually everyone agrees we must do better for those who have given our country so much.

One vital path to improving conditions for our vets is quick adoption of new technologies. And here the Department of Veterans Affairs deserves kudos for rolling out powerful new web and wi-fi based systems to connect with veterans and bring them the benefits and services they have earned.

The VA provided remote care to more than 690,000 veterans last year — more than half of whom live in rural areas with limited access to VA facilities. Wi-fi and mobile-connected telemedicine saves visits to overcrowded clinics and allows veterans to book appointments and fill prescriptions online or receive home healthcare in a more timely and cost-efficient way. Claims processing, education and job aid are all rapidly moving online for vets, especially the tech-savvy post-9/11 generation.

And the promise of new tools that are just coming online is even greater. The VA’s Health Buddy systems, for example, use Internet-linked data communications to monitor chronic and life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. And veterans can find a host of similar tools tailored to their needs in VA’s own online app store, such as the information one-stop-shop app 311Vet or the Preconception Care app designed to support female vets’ sexual and reproductive health.

However, a new threat is emerging that puts their promise at risk. All of these tools depend on high-speed Internet and powerful, widely available wi-fi connectivity.

But our wi-fi spectrum is already overcrowded and threatens to become more so as users and devices multiply. Indeed, Cisco estimates that mobile data traffic will grow by 61 percent annually through 2018, with extra traffic from 2017 alone expected to be three times that of the entire mobile Internet in 2013. Cisco also predicts the spectrum growing increasingly logjammed by almost 5 billion mobile users and 10 billion mobile-ready devices.

Already we are seeing wi-fi lanes grow increasingly congested in areas of the country where many devices are activated. And we can expect heightened gridlock on wi-fi lanes as consumers increasingly rely on voice, video and data applications on computers, tablets, smartphones and other emerging technologies to connect with one another. . At the same time, engineers are warning that new cell phone systems called LTE-U could threaten wi-fi by taking over its spectrum and slowing down the network for everyone else.

Fortunately Washington policymakers aren’t sitting on their hands as this problem unfolds. Sens. Marco Rubio and Cory Booker have written bipartisan legislation that would begin the process of freeing up new areas of spectrum for wi-fi to ease the bandwidth crunch. Congress should move on this critical priority this year.

The FCC is also wisely doing its part by reviewing the different competing technologies that use wi-fi spectrum to ensure that none of them inadvertently weaken or coopt scarce bandwidth. New technologies are great, but they should not be allowed to crowd out or undermine existing uses, especially those relied upon by our vets.

If policymakers don’t act now, the coming wi-fi crunch could have a devastating impact on all Americans, and especially veterans. That would be yet another breach of faith that no American should tolerate or accept.

Anthony T. Hawkins is National Coordinator of the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust.