The Internet today isn't a luxury in any sense of the word. It is a basic human right (*1). In this article, I'll make my case for universal access and why it's critically important.
In 1936, the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was signed into law. That kicked off the process of bringing electricity to pretty much everyone in the country, regardless of where they lived.
The REA was such a success that in 1949, it was further authorized to make low-interest loans to rural telephone companies to expand service.
To help facilitate that, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) was formed in 1954, bringing many rural phone companies under one umbrella.
The benefits were enormous and transformative, allowing Americans all across the land access to electricity and communications. Where would we be today had that not happened? Free enterprise, where every action is measured by the profit it can generate, certainly would not have filled the void nearly as effectively. Profit isn't a dirty word. But when the primary (or only) motive is profit, activities that bring little or no profit may not be undertaken.
Basic Human Right
Same thing with internet access. It's not all about watching cat videos. Too many things today cannot be done effectively, or even at all, any other way. Job searching, timely research, reading the news, distance learning, group conferencing, civic participation in many forms, the list is endless. Think for a few minutes, right now, exactly how YOUR life would be different if you had NO INTERNET ACCESS. (I'll wait...)
There are things that governments are simply better at facilitating: Installing municipal water, power, building roads and bridges, sewage systems, storm water drainage, schools (especially K-12), airports, and more. Without a governmental body, how exactly would these things come to be? If these things were all left to the private sector, where profit is the primary or only driving motive, how widespread do you think they would be?
For society to work, a certain framework must be in place benefiting everyone regardless of their individual ability to pay. Such a framework, or public infrastructure, of basic and reliable services is the foundation upon which people can individually prosper.
For all the reasons that electricity, water, roads, etc. are part of our public infrastructure -- our foundational framework -- so too must access to the internet be universal and inexpensive -- or even free for a basic level of service. The day is long past where signal delivery should be an unregulated money grab. But in our hyper-capitalist country, companies like Comcast and AT&T pick only the juiciest fruit and they are among the most profitable companies in the US. They deploy broadband only in the most profitable areas, charge exorbitant rates, and impose data transfer caps -- just because they can.
The US pretty much invented the internet and made it a critical resource. Yet the US has the second most expensive internet service among OECD countries.
Eventually I'd like to see at least a basic level of internet service available FREE to ALL, regardless of ability to pay. But in the meantime, government should pass laws that encourage and facilitate more aggressive deployment of internet access, rather than passing laws that restrict it! State houses (all republican controlled) in dozens of states have actually passed laws to frustrate, slow, and even ban new broadband entrants to an area, all at the behest of their overlords and masters -- the entrenched private sector broadband companies like Comcast, et al.
Our legislators, once again, are doing the bidding of their mega-donors instead of what is in the best interest of We The People. These petty, anti-consumer, money-grabbing turf wars need to end now. Reliable internet access is that important!
Smartphones Are Not a Luxury
Universal access is all well and good, but to get online you need a device such as a smartphone or a proper computer. Online access is absolutely critical to success in today's world for all the reasons mentioned above. Poorer people have to make tougher choices about what to buy so they often don't have a computer at home. But nearly everyone has a smartphone. The poorer a person is, the more likely their only access to the internet will be on a smartphone. And it's usually not a $700 iPhone, either. More likely a crappy $50 Android model.
The poorest of those don't even have wireless data plans -- can't afford it. They might buy a cheap, used smartphone and get online using public wi-fi hotspots often found at restaurants and in public areas (parks, etc.) of more forward-thinking municipalities. Even some homeless people have smartphones and recharge with a small solar charger -- that's how important the internet is!