The Enduring Myth of the 'Free' Internet

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We somehow have come to believe that information is free, but people with Internet access pay substantial sums to get it -- sums many can't afford.

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The mantra of a "free" Internet has shaped the prevailing view of how we access information and entertainment in the digital age. This enduring myth is actually a misnomer. It continues to obscure a serious problem faced by significant sectors of society unable to take full advantage of the Internet or meet the high price of cable and cellular phone systems that are at the core of today's personal technology.

Yes, it is certainly the case that the devices that connect us to search engines, countless websites, social media, and e-mail bring us vast amounts of content for which we do not pay separately. But access to this "free" information on the Internet, as everyone acknowledges as soon as it is pointed out, is not gratis. Monthly charges for broadband Internet service, plus cable television fees and smartphone bills that together comprise the range of household pleasures and obligations as well as work-related communication that are so embedded in our lives amount to hefty sums. I have been asking friends and colleagues what it costs to maintain all these facets of their activities. Here is a typical response from a young woman in my office:

I spend $100 a month on my cell phone service including data package and [her boyfriend] and I split a $150 cable bill for phone, television, and Internet. Internet access will become more 'free' as there are more free WiFi hotspots around the city in parks, etcetera, although you still have to purchase the device in the first place. In that sense, I spent $800 on a laptop, $300 on an iPad mini, and I got my smartphone free with a two-year contract with my phone company.

My wife and I have smartphones that run $85 a piece per month. Our cable charges (with HBO, Showtime, and DVR), occasional on-demand films, Internet, and taxes total about $225 a month. That means our annual payments to providers are nearing $5,000 (not including the devices themselves, our two landlines, and traditional subscriptions that give us web versions of our favorites). We do not have Netflix or Hulu or other pay-for-use streaming plans, which may eventually challenge cable's dominance.

The leading beneficiaries of all these charges are the big multi-platform companies, the pipes for content and digital services -- among others, Comcast, Time-Warner, and Optimum, as well as the telecoms, Verizon and AT&T. With postal delivery in permanent decline and the inexorable shift to online management of family and business finances, the role of the broadband Internet is reaching a stage where anything less than total availability at minimal prices is a matter that deserves far more attention than it is currently getting. "Free" or virtually free and universal Internet has actually become indispensable, while access to high-speed service in the United States compares poorly to that in many other countries.

Perhaps the most critical appraisal of how our system has evolved comes in David Cay Johnston's book published last fall, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind. Introducing Johnston for an interview on public radio's On the Media, the host, Brooke Gladstone, cited a Commerce Department report that "100 million Americans do not have high speed Internet at home, largely because of high costs and the lack of available infrastructure." This puts a third of the country at a considerable disadvantage in conducting all sorts of activities, from schoolwork to job hunting and bill paying. Among Johnston's revelations in the book: The United States has gone from being first in terms of Internet speed -- as the place where the Internet was invented -- to twenty-ninth in the world, and it is still falling.

"We need to have public policies," Johnston asserted, "that recognize that the Internet is the key to economic growth in the 21st century and that the purpose of our government is not to funnel public resources to promote that of a handful of companies, notably Verizon and AT&T but to promote, as our Constitution says in its, Preamble, the general welfare, to make the country better off."

For now, the likelihood of fulfilling that objective seems remote. Bloomberg Businessweek reported last week that cable companies, confronted with widespread criticism, are preparing to roll out upgraded packages, or what Time-Warner calls "a $200-a-month concierge service" that "includes a 'certified technician' to customize your devices and a 'team of specially trained Personal Solutions Advisors'. ... Customers also get high-speed Internet at up to 50 megabits per second and two multiroom DVRs." In the 2012 American Customer Satisfaction Index ranking more than 225 companies, Businessweek said the four largest U.S. cable companies -- Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, Cox Communications, and Charter -- were all among the ten lowest-rated companies.

One promising initiative, at least as it applies to speed and access, comes from Google Fiber. This is a project the company is developing in Kansas City as a trial of what would be a far faster broadband network using fiber-optic communication. Milo Medin, Google's vice-president of Access Services, wrote in a blog post, "Access speeds have simply not kept pace with the phenomenal increases in computing power and storage capacity that's spurred innovation over the last decade." No other company can match Google's projected speed, but the price it is planning to charge for that service so far is higher than slower providers ($70 a month compared to about $50 for the telecom and cable companies).

On another contentious Internet issue, Lowell Peterson, a member of the Writers Guild of America, posted a spirited piece earlier this month on the Huffington Post summarizing the situation this way:

Consumers pay huge amounts of money to connect their computers and phones to the pipelines carrying the flow of content, but very little of that money makes its way into the pockets of the people who create that content. Instead, the money goes to the Internet service providers and others who control the pipeline. This, in my opinion, should change.

He is right. For all the progress in delivering information and entertainment in the Internet era, Americans deserve and should demand something closer to the ideal of what is possible with our technology. It is now well short of what it could be.

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Peter Osnos is a journalist turned book editor/publisher. He spent 18 years working at various bureaus for The Washington Post before founding Public Affairs Books. More

Peter Osnos is founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at The Century Foundation which distributes this weekly "Platform" column. (An archive of the columns is available at www.tcf.org.) He is vice-chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and executive director of The Caravan Project, which is also based at The Century Foundation.

Osnos spent 18 years at the Washington Post, where he was variously Indochina bureau chief, Moscow correspondent, foreign editor, national editor and London bureau chief.

He was publisher of Random House's Times Books Division from 1991 to 1996, and was also vice president and associate publisher of the Random House imprint. Authors he has worked with include President Bill Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Barack Obama, Boris Yeltsin, Paul Volcker, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Clark Clifford, Sam Donaldson, Morley Safer, Peggy Noonan, Molly Ivins, Stanley Karnow, Jim Lehrer, Muhammad Yunus, Scott McClellan, Robert McNamara, Natan Sharansky, and journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Atlantic and the Economist.

He served as chair of the Trade Division of the Association of American Publishers Committee, and is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch. He serves on the board of other journalism and human rights organizations and is a member of The Council on Foreign Relations.
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