The Enduring Myth of the 'Free' Internet

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.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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