Is the Internet a Luxury?

It may seem like everyone’s online these days, yet 30 percent of Americans still don’t have broadband Internet at home. That’s a lot of people who are disconnected, and statistically, wireless-less Americans tend to be older, poorer and less educated than those who have it.

Now, President Barack Obama wants to bridge this cultural divide by expanding Internet access to the poor. His plan, called ConnectHome, will provide free or low-cost ($10/month) Internet to 275,000 low-income houses in 27 cities around the country.

As with any decision this president makes, Obama’s plan has spawned a lot of criticism. Michael O’Rielly, the FCC Commissioner and a Republican, has previously declared that the Internet is “not a right” for Americans. Basically, this controversy all boils down to whether the Internet should be considered a luxury or a necessity.

I remember a time when the Internet was definitely a luxury. In my early teen years, families in my neighborhood started adding America Online to their home computers and they got to email, Instant Message, and explore the seedy world of chat rooms. I know I thought I “needed” my parents to get AOL, too, so I could stay in better contact with my friends, but at the time, my teachers didn’t even count Internet sites as valid sources for research papers.

However, I’d have trouble calling the Internet a luxury nearly 20 years later. Now, I’d be hard-pressed to name a friend who doesn’t live in a home with a broadband connection. Certainly no millennial I know would be willing to live anywhere long-term without the Internet.

Yes, the Internet is at least part luxury, as the home of nonessentials like Netflix, porn and cat videos on YouTube, but just think of all the tasks that are part of your everyday life now:

  • Emailing family members
  • Communicating with colleagues
  • Searching for jobs
  • Online banking
  • Paperless billing
  • Reading the news

In particular, President Obama wants to see his Internet plan reach at least 200,000 kids who wouldn’t have the Web otherwise. He noted that the Internet is now a prime indicator of what side of the achievement gap a student falls on and that homework is increasingly difficult for students without the Internet in their homes. “If we don’t get these young people the access to what they need to achieve their potential, then it’s our loss; it’s not just their loss,” the president said.

While Obama is trying to spread access to more poor families, a group of liberal superstars are working to make the Internet a little bit more affordable for everyone. This month, Senators Al Franken, Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Barry Sanders penned a letter demanding an investigation into soaring cable and internet prices.

The Internet may no longer be a luxury, but it’s certainly still priced as such. At this point, Internet service providers seem to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want Americans to be hooked on their services and make life feel impossible without it. On the other hand, they want to deny that it’s a necessity so they can avoid being labeled a utility subject to additional regulations and even price restrictions.

Navigating through this complicated issue of trying to rein in on broadband providers’ de facto monopolies will probably take years to come, which is why Obama’s plan to expand cheap Internet access to poor communities is beneficial in the meantime.