A Human Right: Will the Internet Go Truly Free?
We would like it on a plane. We would like it on a train. We would like it in our cafes, in our hotels and, of course, in our homes. The people of the 21st century have spoken, and their cry is for free or affordable Internet access wherever they go.
Hotel guests ranked free wireless Internet access as their most-desired amenity in a J.D. Power & Associates survey from 2010. But it's not just an idealized creature comfort for business travelers almost four out of five people considered Internet access a "fundamental right" in a BBC World Service poll from the same year.
Internet access has already been enshrined as a human right in countries such as Finland, Estonia, France, Greece and Spain. At least one nonprofit organization also wants to bring free, basic Internet access to developing countries that where Internet access is currently unaffordable, spotty or nonexistent.
Still, Internet access as a human right does not necessarily mean having free Internet access, experts say. Countries that consider Internet access a human right focus on guaranteeing the infrastructure that allows citizens to buy Internet access if they can afford it. That follows the familiar old model where most users paying flat rates and heavy users paying usage-based fees.
"A growing number of countries already regard access to telephone service as a basic right and the updated version of that is Internet access," said William Lehr, an economist at MIT. "It is certainly basic infrastructure and will be even more so in the future."
"But, there are no free lunches, Lehr later said in an e-mail. Whether we choose to provide this as a government service or leave it to the private sector (more likely), there will be a cost that will have to be borne."
The ways forward
Much Internet access may seem especially out of reach for the poorest U.S. citizens. About 44 percent of Americans living below the poverty line turn to public libraries for free Internet access, according to a 2010 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. However, some wiggle room exists for creatively balancing costs against social responsibility.
The U.S. Internet giant Comcast unveiled a three-year program that allows any family with a kid eligible for free school lunches to sign up for a $9.95 per month connection and a free modem. Those who already have a Comcast connection are the only group ineligible for the offer, according to the announcement made in December 2010.
In another case, seniors who live in a subsidized apartment building in Iowa City, Iowa now enjoy free high-speed Internet connections of 5 to 10 megabits per second (Mbps). That means an Internet-savvy grandma or grandpa can download a 5 megabyte (MB) file such as a music mp3 in four to eight seconds.
The free Internet opportunity came about when the apartment owners struck a deal with a local business called Keystone IT. Keystone got to install Internet antennas on the building roof at no charge besides piping broadband into the building for the residents, according to Mike McKay, vice president and general manager of Keystone IT.
Keystone does not plan to offer free Internet on a broader scale, but the company harbors a vision of providing more affordable, high-speed Internet access while undercutting its competitors.
"Our long term goal is to provide super low-cost Internet for all of Iowa City," McKay told InnovationNewsDaily. "From a social standpoint, it's just overpriced."
Beyond these shores
Having Internet can make an even bigger impact in developing countries where the inability to simply Google an answer to any given question hurts economic and social growth. Even the smartest individuals can face years of setbacks without access to basic information, as in the case of a young African inventor named William Kamkwamba.
Kamkwamba attracted the attention of journalists by re-inventing the windmill from scratch to provide himself with electricity in Dowa, Malawi. But when asked whether he knew about Google, he first thought the journalists were talking about an animal at least until he was given the chance to google "windmill" and see millions of applications listed.
Stories such as Kamkwamba's are why Kosta Grammatis, an engineer and tech entrepreneur, founded the non-profit organization A Human Right, with the goal of giving everyone free basic Internet access.
Grammatis launched the "Buy This Satellite" initiative to try and purchase a communications satellite owned by a company that had filed for bankruptcy, and highlighted Kamkwamba's story as one of several on the project website. He hopes to eventually begin beaming a free basic Internet service to developing countries such as Papua New Guinea, or perhaps part of Africa.
"To empower people to help themselves is our basic goal, to create a basic condition of opportunity for everyone," Grammatis told InnovationNewsDaily.
What happens next
Even if more governments don't take action to try and spread Internet access, private industry might very well do it anyway, said Andrew Odlyzko, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota who studies Internet economics. Certain programs could provide subsidized prices for low Internet connectivity similar to the Comcast program which allow for Web browsing, e-mail, chat and checking Facebook.
"I suspect that if the government doesn't do it, many carriers will begin introducing starter plans very limited plans curbed at half a megabit for a low price," Odlyzko said. "It's in the industry's interest to increase penetration."
Still, a majority of people today recognize Internet access as something both fundamental and crucial in the 21st century. In the 2010 poll commissioned by the BBC World Service, 79 percent of people said access to the Internet was a human right, which speaks to how embedded the Internet has become in modern life, said Sam Mountford, research director for the research consultancy firm Globescan.
"Other rights that are frequently asserted housing, food and shelter, legal representation would not commonly be expected to be free, yet might still be considered rights," Mountford said. "My guess is that most people will have interpreted this to mean both accessible and affordable."
Different countries may define accessible and affordable in different ways, with a plethora of solutions springing up that each serve in their own way. Yet all the schemes will need to come up with a convincing answer to the question of who is willing to pay for Internet access or else the concept may become a forgotten pipe dream that gets trampled underfoot in the rush to forge the future.