Vice President of Product Management at Tata Communications, overseeing the global managed network services portfolio.
Public utilities — the supply of electricity, gas, water, sewerage and phone lines — can be publicly or privately owned, but they are united by the fact that all of them are deemed essential for modern living.
We tend to classify, protect and provision public utilities differently in various parts of the world. Nonetheless, looking at that list of utilities, most people today would likely identify a missing piece. In today’s world where so much of life and work happens online, shouldn’t the internet be considered a utility?
It has become something of a vexed question, yet the internet is increasingly entering the category of essential utilities — a fact reinforced by the current pandemic the world is facing.
The internet’s importance is huge and still growing. Arguably, it’s never been more essential than in the past few months, as families, friends and colleagues are finding themselves far apart but wishing to feel much closer together.
As hard as this pandemic has been for many people, imagine trying to survive it without internet access. I have not used the word “survive” lightly. When access to information is vital and when staying home has become literally a matter of life and death for people in higher-risk groups, the ability to access up-to-date advice or order vital food and supplies without leaving home puts new emphasis on the importance of the internet and staying connected.
The internet is often lightheartedly written off as containing only cat videos or photos of people’s breakfasts. But Article 27 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This does not necessarily mean that access to the internet itself is an inalienable human right, but with so much of modern culture taking place online, it does add weight to the internet’s claim to utility status.
Part of the virtue of a utility is that it should be seen as universal. That’s important because even in times when the world is not facing a pandemic, the internet is a major leveler. It promotes social mobility through improved access to information and education and access to cheaper prices and tariffs for all sorts of goods and amenities.
All of this means that those without internet access are significantly disadvantaged, similar to not having access to electricity in times gone by. Here’s the thing, though: The internet is delivered in a very different, more complex way than other utilities, and in many cases, those models are hampering its rollout.
If we accept that the internet is a utility, we should be asking how we can connect more people to ensure they can benefit from internet access. But the economics of internet provision are more complex than you might think. The companies that benefit most from more people going online — think content providers, publishers, social networks, etc. — don’t pay toward the provision of the internet, for internet hardware or for extending and improving the web’s infrastructure and reach.
Even in high income countries (HICs) like the U.K. and the U.S., this means people are being left behind. In rural communities where subscriber numbers don’t warrant the capital investment required to update or extend infrastructure, it doesn’t pay to improve internet access. We need to solve this problem, which runs across HICs and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) alike.
It’s true that less fortunate communities in both HICs and LMICs can be disproportionately burdened with substandard internet infrastructure compared to more affluent areas because for-profit organizations can’t make sufficient returns from improving access. As a result, these communities cannot benefit from e-learning to improve skills, order grocery deliveries, access cheaper prices for goods and services, start online businesses or enjoy softer cultural benefits, like the ability to access the latest TV shows. The COVID-19 lockdown has been a stark demonstration of the impact of this digital divide.
It’s possible to survive without the internet, of course. In fact, it’s become somewhat fashionable to go without access for a period of time in high-income countries. But comparing this to life without the internet is the equivalent of comparing intermittent fasting to malnutrition. In its 2020 Global Social Mobility Index, the World Economic Forum included technology access as one of 10 pillars contributing, with equal weight, to a nation’s social mobility score, alongside factors such as health and access to education.
Ensuring that improved internet access is funded accordingly will help create a sustainable model for improving the quality of service and access for all, updating aging infrastructure and extending the benefits of the internet to more people around the world.
Questioning whether or not the internet is a utility may sound like toying with semantics. But perhaps by classifying the internet as a utility and truly recognizing its importance to the fabric of our societies, we can start a conversation that will bring more people online to enjoy the internet’s myriad benefits.
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