VA, Microsoft join forces to bring broadband to rural vets

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The lack of broadband access in rural areas is a major barrier to more veterans leveraging telehealth services. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Microsoft are trying to change that.

The VA and the tech giant are working together to extend broadband internet connectivity to underserved rural veteran communities, enabling them to take advantage of online services and benefits such as telemedicine.

“This partnership will serve a particularly vulnerable population of veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a written statement. “Millions of people in the U.S., including many of the 4.7 million veterans living in rural areas, lack the broadband internet connection necessary to access opportunities to learn, work, access information and communicate.”

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Currently, there are 2.7 million veterans enrolled in the VA who are living in rural communities, of which 42 percent do not have internet access that would support their use of telehealth or other online services, according to Christine Eickhoff of the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Community Engagement.

The VA operates the nation’s largest telemedicine program. Last year, the agency conducted more than 1 million video telehealth visits—a 19 percent increase over the previous year—and the VA’s overall goal is to increase veterans receiving some care through telehealth from 13 percent to 20 percent.

Microsoft first approached the VA in an effort to support rural veterans, adds Eickhoff, who described it as a “non-monetary” partnership while emphasizing that neither organization is actually providing the broadband internet connection that will provide the online access.

“Through the partnership, we’ll help VA identify communities with veterans in need and work with our internet service provider (ISP) partners across the nation to bring broadband services to those regions,” writes Shelley McKinley, head of technology and corporate responsibility at Microsoft, in a blog. “Following our Airband Initiative model, we’ll also provide the veterans in these newly connected communities with digital skills training so they can take advantage of the tools and services connectivity enables, including critical telehealth services provided by VA.”

Launched in 2017, the Microsoft Airband Initiative has established partnerships in 16 states to bring broadband connectivity to more than 1 million rural Americans who currently lack access, with the goal of reaching 3 million people by 2022.

“We have seen firsthand just how many communities lack connectivity at broadband speeds and how this can hinder growth and new opportunities,” according to Microsoft’s McKinley. “We’ve also seen that partnering with ISPs to serve those most in need is an effective strategy to make progress quickly on this important issue. Our work with VA builds on those lessons and approach.”

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