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.
Fashion My Phone/Flickr
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.