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Case Study

Online in the Heart of Texas


Texas is a big state. It has a lot of blue sky, a lot of long roads and a lot of big storms. Some storms involve thunder and lightning or rain or hail; others involve turbulence of a more personal nature.

Mike became homeless in late 2018, and since then, he’s been living in his truck. He’s had a stroke and has problems with his short-term memory. He’s also a 100 percent disabled veteran who gets cluster headaches and receives both Social Security Disability (SSD) and Veterans Administration (VA) benefits. As military service members and their families will tell you, demonstrating eligibility for benefits is no simple matter. It involves a Texas-sized pile of paperwork, research, legal advice and advocacy and a whole lot of waiting.

When Mike first struggled to show eligibility for benefits in the 1990s, he found himself driving for hours and sleeping in his truck in the parking lot of Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas. When the library opened in the morning, he’d go in and pore over the law books and resources there, all of which were on paper. The only way to see them was to be there in person, which wasn’t a sustainable practice for someone who lived a hundred-plus miles away.

Since then, a lot has changed. Most law libraries have digitized all their content. Veterans apply for VA and other benefits online. And social media has changed the world in many ways, including in how like-minded individuals connect.

Another important change for Mike has been the purchase of a new Lenovo tablet and a Franklin mobile hotspot, which Mobile Citizen makes available through resellers to people like Mike. Powered by Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, Mobile Citizen has allowed Mike to pay a very manageable fraction of his previous internet/cable bill, and he gets mobile access to the internet that works almost anywhere he goes—all from a box the size of a deck of cards.

Many folks without permanent residences use libraries, coffee shops and other public facilities to get online and manage bills, do their banking and access important information. Mike’s Mobile Citizen device uses the Sprint mobile network to create a secure connection, so he doesn’t have to worry when he’s entering personal data on the VA web site.

It also gives him 24/7 access to forms of support and information he would not have imagined when he first started reaching out for help with cluster headaches and other medical symptoms. Many conditions that veterans face aren’t immediately recognized by the VA as “disabling.” Getting help, therefore, involves a long, drawn-out claims and appeals process, with lots of back-and-forth communication with various military boards that receive claims and evidence and issue judgment or hear appeals. The process of determining eligibility and issuing a disability rating that determines a veteran’s benefit level can take months—or even years.

Research, access to email and legal help are critical, and having unreliable access to the internet could cause a claimant to miss an important deadline or be unable to spend the time it takes to find the information that will make all the difference in a claim. In Mike’s case, the hotspot and secure mobile access not only made overnighters at the law library a thing of the past but also helped to make sure he didn’t miss any deadlines.

There has also been another benefit that Mike didn’t anticipate. Over the past 20 years, as organizations have discovered the power of social media, dozens of support groups have emerged as lifelines for veterans. “Facebook access alone changed my life,” Mike notes, citing that many veterans find the community they’ve been looking for on social media. He described feeling “isolated and alone,” like a lot of service members, with symptoms and problems that most civilians couldn’t understand. “Being able to meet people with my condition made a big difference for me.”

In fact, Mike has found thousands of people from all over the world, including veterans, who share advice about health concerns, medications and strategies for dealing with their disabling conditions. “I found things I qualify for that I never would have known about. I got my hearing aids because of the research I did online,” he says. He also likes the fact that these groups allow for some measure of anonymity, which is important not just for basic privacy reasons but also because a lot of veterans have pending claims that could be impacted by things they say or do.

Mike isn’t sure when he’s going to be able to find stable housing, but in the meantime, he can take care of business, keep in touch with family, and share his experiences with others who understand. He even drove to another state to meet up with a group of disabled veterans from an online support community. “Having access to all these resources can save lives,” he said. He’s really happy with his hotspot device. He says it “works just about as well” as the internet he used to have in his home, which cost many times more, and unlike a home modem and router, he can take his hotspot with him wherever he goes. It usually even works in those infamous Texas storms.