It was a late, cold winter night in 2019. Tightly wrapped in a sleeping bag inside a van parked at a local Walmart in Hyattsville, MD, I desperately tapped my phone, attempting to refresh my cellular data so I could check my work email. But no matter how many times I hit refresh, my phone refused to connect to the local networks. Eventually I gave up, falling asleep worried, knowing that I was falling behind work and losing my sense of job security.

That night was only one of many nights where I have struggled to attain the technological connection many people now take for granted. See, I am one of many that have pursued “vanlife.” Vanlife is just like it sounds: a lifestyle characterized by living in a van—often out of necessity. As one may expect, living full time in a van had a number of challenges: one of the biggest hurdles being access to safe and stable Wi-Fi access.

As the internet is becoming a more important tool of communication and commerce, it is changing the workforce in both urban, suburban, and rural areas including roads and parking lots. These days, even farmers, as well as nomadic workers, need solid internet connectivity for their work. As a result, people forced to live without reliable internet often struggle economically. And it’s a vicious cycle: 18 percent of adults in households earning less than $30,000/year do not use the internet, while only 2 percent of adults in households earning less than $75,000 do not use the internet. This is not surprising considering that in 2020 a quarter of all renters paid over half their incomes for housing, meaning that low-income households are unlikely to prioritize Wi-Fi access.

Vulnerable citizens—such as those that pursue vanlife out of necessity—should not have to forego safe and stable Wi-Fi. As more people are living inside their cars and RVs after losing jobs and homes since the COVID-19 crisis started, my hope is that such changes will come sooner rather than later.

Possible Solutions

Today, high-speed internet access is necessary to “regional commerce, education, health and public safety, cultural enrichment [and] government operations,” let alone the many conveniences and efficiencies in our lives. In short, the internet is important for all ranges of work—especially with the growing need of online access since the COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, expanding broadband access, the increasingly popular form of internet connection due to its speed, is vital—especially for vulnerable populations such as low-income families in rural areas that are in fear of being forced to live on the road.

That said, to ensure that more Americans have access to quality internet, federal efforts should focus on supporting new initiatives like the development of 6G access rather than echoing debates that revolve around new, but soon to be outdated, issues like 5G. In this regard, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should reassess the efficacy of their funding for rural telephone companies as they consider investing more on the latest broadband buildouts. Considering the lack of attention from the previous administration, the Biden administration should make security and availability of the latest broadband networks a priority. In the same way that telegraphs became obsolete with the development of the telephone, new technologies can prove to be cheaper and more effective, making them more accessible for the public. Time will be of the essence in supporting such changes considering that, last April, the Pew Research Center found that “87% of adults [said] that the internet has been at least important for them personally during the coronavirus outbreak, including 53% who [described] it as essential.”

However, expanding broadband access must come in parallel with securing public wireless networks seeing that, during COVID-19, “roughly half of Americans with lower incomes [reported being] worried about paying their broadband and cell phone bills over the coming months.” While public wireless networks are unlikely to ever be as safe as private wireless networks, securing public wireless networks is a possible goal seeing how standardizing encryption has drastically helped security levels for users. That said, it is important to note that increasing security measures is often matched with growing sophistication in cyber threats. With an approximate increase of 35 percent in cyber-attacks in the first half of 2020 compared to the second half of 2019, a Microsoft report revealed that attackers have started to shift toward more targeted techniques. Their efforts not only focus on specific organizations, but are also personalized based on the information they were likely to have encountered from their news sources.

Seeing the ever-growing cyber threats, the U.S. government, such as the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies (NICCS) of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), must continuously encourage educational initiatives to empower users with knowledge that can add protection to their Wi-Fi networks, whether it be public or private. Those with additional funds, for example, may benefit by investing in Virtual Private Networks (VPN). New online users can also benefit from basic cybersecurity training that shows the importance of multi-factor authentications (MFA) and the danger of “Lost And Found” thumb drives. The phrase, “knowledge is power,” remains true in the cybersecurity space.

Ultimately, we have to look at the numbers. More than 18 million Americans, many in rural areas, lack high quality, affordable broadband service—none more so than those pursuing vanlife. This is unsustainable. American broadband networks like AT&T and Verizon have found the gaps in providing reliable Wi-Fi networks to low-income families and Americans in non-traditional housing in unserved areas. If policymakers want to improve the economic opportunities available for these groups, along with van livers, they should begin by investing in expanding broadband access, securing public wireless networks and expanding educational initiatives for cybersecurity basics.

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