On Wednesday, Politico reported on a leaked email from the Department of Veterans Affairs, expressing concern that California’s net neutrality law could force some wireless providers to end a program that exempted the V.A.’s telehealth app from their customers’ data caps.
Veterans across the country and in California shouldn’t have to worry they’ll go over their data caps by talking to their doctor or mental health provider online. In fact, no American or Californian should.
But California’s net neutrality law is not the problem here.
While a press leak does drive fear-mongering coverage, there are easy solutions that broadband providers could embrace that are far more effective at helping veterans and all Californians, while also complying with California’s net neutrality protections.
As the pandemic has shown, it’s vital that all Americans are able to use their internet connection to work, go to school and see a doctor.
To help, carriers could exempt all conversational video apps like Skype, Zoom and the V.A.’s telehealth app from people’s data caps. That way veterans, teachers, police officers, suicidal teens, retirees, people with low incomes and members of traditionally marginalized communities can all work, learn and get critical healthcare virtually. That kind of category-based zero-rating is allowed under California’s net neutrality law.
This would also be better for veterans: Veterans could use the doctor or mental health provider of their choice, using whatever app they like or whatever app their health care provider uses.
That’s important. V.A. mental health providers currently use whatever online tool a veteran is comfortable with — Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, WebEx, etc., but under the carriers’ current system, only the V.A.’s telehealth app is exempt from veterans’ data caps, hurting those who use other apps or get their medical care outside of the V.A..
Alternatively, carriers could offer more affordable unlimited plans just for veterans. That’s technically simpler than zero-rating and removes the need for it entirely. (At $55/month for one line, T-Mobile’s current discount plan for veterans is far more expensive than the $40/month plan for people over the age of 55). Under the current system, veterans on capped plans can use the V.A. telehealth app without worrying about their cap, but have to ration their data for everything else. With truly affordable unlimited plans, veterans can apply for jobs, take classes, join online support groups, and connect with family, friends and those they served with and see their doctor — all without fear they are going over their cap.
Carriers can also lower the cost of unlimited plans for everyone so people can use the internet in the way that’s best for them. That’s the real solution, not allowing ISPs to pick and choose what apps and what segment of the population gets relief from low data caps.
Congress understands that, which is why it recently passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit that provides $50 a month to households with low incomes so they can do all the things they need to do online.
Finally, the carriers told the V.A. they will be forced to shut down this program for all veterans nationwide. That’s not true; the law only applies to California customers.
While not a solution to the real problem, carriers could turn off the program for California customers and just bump up California veterans’ data caps, while keeping the program the same in all the other states.
But carriers do not seem to be interested in finding ways to comply with California’s net neutrality law, which is not surprising given they spent millions in 2018 to stop it.
The ISPs then started this program with the V.A. in 2019 after the law took effect.
The carriers had two years to work with the California AG’s Office to come up with a solution, but they did not. Instead they waited those two years, scared the V.A. with phantoms of lost benefits, and then the V.A.’s communication got leaked to the press.
That looks more like an industry using veterans as political pawns than one committed to ensuring Americans can get the life-saving online health services they need.
Americans and veterans deserve better.
Professor Barbara van Schewick is a professor of law at Stanford University and the director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.