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Staying in touch with our soldiers abroad -- how wireless Internet is transforming wartime communications

This Labor Day, we will no doubt be saying prayers and giving thanks to the soldiers, Marines and members of the Air Force still fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.  My own brother-in-law Josh is serving in an infantry regiment attached to the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. Amazingly, we are able to thank him face-to-face, over the Internet.

For centuries, communications between families at home and soldiers fighting on the war front were limited to written letters, often long delayed and sometimes never delivered. Throughout conflicts of the 20th Century, letters winged their way between home and the front. 

Letters from soldiers in the trenches in World War I are often faded, not just by time, but because ink was dear and often had to be watered-down. World War II soldiers, Marines and Airmen reported that letters and V-mail took weeks to catch up to them, sometimes longer, often arriving in batches or out of order.

By the Vietnam War, reel-to-reel tapes allowed some families to hear the voices of their loved ones, but the delays were significant and tragic at times. Technology finally allowed for phone calls, but calls were exceedingly rare and generally only for emergencies – if calls were even possible.

Fast forward to today. For many of the armed forces fighting in Afghanistan, daily phone calls are standard, supplemented by e-mail and even frequent video calls over Skype or similar applications.

We take for granted modern-day technologies that have the ability to keep us connected, and perhaps no other technology has transformed communication during wartime as much as the Internet. Not only has modern technology transformed warfare from a battlefield and strategic perspective, it has also transformed the way in which those deployed are able to keep in touch with the people who matter most back home.

As the Internet continues to transform military activities, wireless technology in particular is enabling better, real-time communications with members of our armed forces abroad. For example, the time difference between the United States and Afghanistan means that many communications take place during the morning and afternoon hours in the US, when many are at work. Being able to use a video or voice call app, such as Skype, e-mail, or a chat service, such as Google Talk, on a smartphone enables couples and families to connect in real-time.

Debates over the need for more of the airwaves over which wireless digital traffic flows too frequently treat video and data-intensive applications that keep us connected as trivial. But it’s not just about streaming a movie or watching a live sporting event.

We need fast, reliable and robust airwaves devoted to these important communications tools.  To date, government has only assigned a small fraction of the total amount of this spectrum available to consumer wireless communications, meaningfully less than most other developed nations despite Americans’ more comprehensive use of bandwidth.  We can do better.

The Internet brings family members of those risking their lives on the front lines closer to their loved ones. So this Labor Day, as Americans at home are able to pay tribute through face-to-face conversations with those deployed in Afghanistan, remember how it is they are connecting. We should do all we can to ensure reliable wireless connectivity continues to be available whenever and wherever we are.
                                                                                                                
Bruce Mehlman is former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy and founding co-chairman of the
Internet Innovation Alliance.