What if Internet Access Were Free?

Imagine if the United States was the first country to have free internet access for every American citizen. Isn’t that an endeavor that would be worth pursuing even if we never attained it? Wouldn’t you want to be part of the generation that made that possible? In 2009 a study at Harvard placed the United States at 17th for broadband internet and usage. This, from the country that helped invent the personal computer, the television, the smartphone, and the internet.

Internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s table stakes for us to remain competitive in the international market. In the way that our roads, bridges, waterways, and sewers are basic components of our infrastructure, Internet access has become crucial in our connected world. We can argue the merits ad nauseam whether that should be government or big business. Some might argue that it is government that makes roads and bridges possible, but the reality is, it has always been business that has driven infrastructure. The first roads were built by merchants establishing trade routes. Railroads and bridges were built by commerce to move goods.

This need not be an either-or scenario. Our country has flourished under our profound belief in free-markets and competition. Establishing a national infrastructure for internet access could easily–and might necessarily–be driven by business. But the governance, use, and assurance of fair access to that needs to be of the people and for the people. Our airwaves and our airspace belong to the people. But it has been business–and academics–who use those airwaves to drive learning and commerce who have built, innovated, and pushed its boundaries. What I’m proposing here is a sort of creative commons for internet infrastructure. Creative commons does not displace copyright, so too could an internet access creative commons still allow for those entrepreneurs who venture investment to still see their returns.

This is an issue of ownership and control. Should business be allowed to build the infrastructure and profit from it? Absolutely. Should they own it and determine who should have access (and that includes restricting access by unfair pricing)? No they should not.

How much internet bandwidth do we use in North America? How much would it cost to pay for North America’s internet bandwidth usage? By 2016, it would cost about $2.5B a month.

A recent white paper from Cisco projects that North America will consume 28 exabytes (~30B gigabytes) of bandwidth per month by 2016. That assumes growth at about 22% CAGR.

If we apply the handy-dandy estimation work by Marshall Brain, a conservative estimate places 1GB at 8.3 cents. That’s assuming that providers include a 200% return, which is already pretty darn generous if you ask me.

That means per month: 30,064,771,072 x 0.083 = $2.5B.

Now take that and divide it by 317M Americans. That’s about $8/month. Granted, that means every living man, woman, and child pays $8/month. If we break that down to the average size of the American household, that’s about 2.63. So now we have each household paying about $21/month. Compare that to your average internet bill and you start to see just how much your internet provider is gouging you. Now consider the following:

  • that’s if we paid entirely for our Canadian neighbors (we wouldn’t)
  • that assumes the US population won’t grow (it will)
  • that assumes bandwidth costs don’t go down (they should)

Yes, I know there are things like infrastructure costs and getting it to the more rural areas and disrupting busy urban centers, so the actual costs will be far more complex. I’m just illustrating that such a proposition is not so entirely crazy.

Now what would happen if the U.S. government paid for it? I know, $30B a year when we’re already fighting for important expenditures like education and healthcare seems crazy to even consider. But consider a connected America where every citizen has internet access–anywhere, anytime. What could that do for our economy? Access to the internet–information and enterprise–can influence and enable these other national concerns. Besides, there’s no need to make the taxpayer shoulder it entirely. Add an internet tax to companies. Insert corporate uproar here. You know what? Fortune 500 companies made $824B last year. Capitalism, free-trade, and all that, sure. But imagine the opportunities for industry when we are the first country on the planet who has free internet access for all. With the onslaught of connected devices, smart kiosks, and ambient sensors, it benefits companies when their potential customer base can access their products and services, anytime, anywhere. Cost of doing business, folks. Apple alone could pay for all internet access for the next 1.5 years with its cash reserves.

There used to be a time when our country dreamed together. Where we endeavored to do the impossible. When we had faith that if we did the right things, for the right reasons, that our system, our people, and our economy would still profit. And we did. Would doing something like this be incredibly hard? Sure. Will the temptation be to maneuver and jockey for position for immediate gain and drive corporate profits? Yes. That has always been and will likely always be. But our history is that of a people who have been willing to sacrifice and to make the hard choices when necessary. To do so because we believed in the greater opportunity that lay ahead.

Imagine a nation, blessed with boundless resources, incredible creativity and innovation, and a competitive spirit to drive value. Now imagine that nation unlocking 317M of its people to have access to a connected world. Imagine.