The Internet Highway is Not for Everyone

A recent article on CrunchGear reports that, according to the FCC, “about 93 million Americans don’t use fast, broadband Internet, citing cost and complexity as a factor in their refusal to enter the 20th century.”

Cost and complexity are the principal factors that stymie growth and change. In essence human beings are reluctant to change methods if their current one “works”. Of course the horse and carriage is still a “workable” mode of transportation, however in the 21st century it is hardly practicable.

I find an underlying problem in the, relatively, low broadband adoption rates. Do those still using slower connections actually need the extra speed gained by using faster broadband connections?

An appropriate metaphor would be to look at the rise in popularity of the netbooks in 2009. The adoption pattern for ordinary personal computers (both laptops and desktops) has been to always acquire a faster processor, better graphics card, bigger screen, etc. So, how on earth has an underpowered and underwhelming breed of consumer electronics become such a sensation? Without getting into a debate on software feature bloat or why the iPod and the Flip Camcorder have become success stories despite their lack of apparent basic “features”, it is safe to say that consumers are no longer falling foul of the “SUV effect, whereby a product or feature is appended merely because there may be a need for it in the future. Hence, the netbook’s enormous success.

My father purchased a 17” MacBook Pro, about 2 years ago, for about US$ 3,500. WOW! I spent US$ 2,500 on a desktop that is far far more powerful than the MacBook Pro. Leaving aside the fact the laptop is an Apple product and there are certain advantages the fact is he bought a PC that is a thousand dollars more expensive than mine. Firstly, I bought my desktop to primarily play the latest computer games. Generally, these require a good graphics card. My father bought his laptop to browse the web (checking e-mail, bank accounts, facebook, etc. all fall under this head), listen to music, organise his digital photos (only organise not edit) and occasionally pen a document. In essence the only thing he comes close to taxing on his MacBook Pro is the hard drive, owing to the large photo and music collection. Even then when I say taxing I mean 50% full.

Indeed there is no-one, outside of enthusiasts, who require such a powerful computer save those wishing to perform specific intensive tasks, such as gaming and photo/video editing. This is exactly the reason Netbooks are so popular. The “ultra-portable” market was originally made up of highly expensive models that catered generally to a business market. They had high costs and average specs. To the ordinary consumer it made more sense to buy a slightly bigger computer with much better specs. Then in late 2007 Asus introduced its Eee PC. Contrary to the views of tech pundits, this low powered “netbook” was snapped up by consumers for three reasons it was cheap, it was light, and it was fast. The tech community realised that buying a beast of a laptop did not really make browsing the web or writing a word document any faster. Money could be saved in going for a “netbook”.

This unnecessarily convoluted analogy serves to point out that perhaps broadband is not actually required by all consumers. I am a heavy internet user. I watch videos on youtube, play games over the internet, and use applications like Skype which require a fast connection. However, if all I wanted to do was occasionally check my e-mail and wikipedia wouldn’t it be sufficient to have a slower dial-up connection? It was only about 8 years ago that I was using a dial-up connection and while I do recall it being an absolute nightmare using the internet, for basic tasks such as checking my mail and loading primarily text based web-pages it was sufficient.

There is no doubt that by limiting oneself to a dial-up connection there is a vast swath of the web that is rendered unusable, however if I never use this portion or never intend to use this portion does that matter? In effect isn’t this like buying a Lamborghini in Mumbai? If I can’t use the product to its full potential is there any point in actually having that product?

Other than e-mail, which has became the de facto form of professional and personal communication, there does not appear to be any feature of the internet that is completely indispensible. Arguably on-line newspapers are useful, but hardly indispensible. I accept that the single most ground-breaking use of the internet has been to promote the voice of the previously unheard such as the residents of Tehran during the 2009 Iran Presidential Elections. However, these are few and far between. The point is even tweeting does not actually require a high speed connection.

I also accept that the internet has fostered the growth of a number of convenient methods of managing our lives. Again I fail to see any one feature or product that is so essential that every individual should have a high-speed broadband connection.

My usage, on a weekday, consists of me going to Google Reader and reading my RSS feeds. I may talk with my girlfriend on Skype. That’s it. On weekends I have more time and I may spend some time looking at videos or playing games on-line. But, if my weekday usage is indicative of a large portion of the computer using community it begs the question is a high-speed connection essential? I concede that Skype (especially with video) requires a high-speed connection, but is that enough to justify its cost? I further concede that cost is not really a factor either as the per-minute cost of dial-up may in some situations equal the unlimited all you can eat broadband packages that have become ubiquitous. However, I spend about 2 hours using my internet on a weekday. I am confident a per minute dial-up connection may actually be cheaper than the monthly broadband fees we have been contracted into. Mind you I am not saying I am going to forego my broadband package as there are times I need a high-speed connection. My point is merely to illuminate the fact that there exists a minority that don’t care about the portions of the web that actually require a fast connection.

I hope someone can point out why high speed internet should be a staple of every household, because to my mind the stage has not been reached where such penetration is actually necessary.
  1. Anonymous

    February 25, 2010 at 11:44 PM

    I don't think it's surprising at all that someone would want a very powerful computer to do tasks that an ordinary netbook can. There are so many other items around the house that can similarly fall under the "useless" category. For instance - 60" flat screen tv's and home theatre systems. You're not always going to have a huge viewing party. But it's always nice to have that little extra bit of convenience if you can afford it.

  1. Anonymous

    February 25, 2010 at 11:47 PM

    Yea... I totally agree..

  1. Abhiroop

    February 26, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    Firstly, I don’t think anyone would doubt the fact that we as human beings often “want” a lot of things that we don’t actually “need”. Human beings need three essential things for survival, shelter, food and water. However, these only take care of the basic physical needs. If our existence was to be based on these three things our emotional well-being would suffer greatly.

    Anyway let’s assume that everything outside of those three fundamental requirements is superfluous, i.e. we don’t need it to survive. Why do we strive to have so many other useless gadgets that fill our lives? Well the primary reason is our emotional well-being. We may be able to physically survive with just food and water but we would most likely suffer some sort of mental breakdown as a result of the complete isolation. To avoid this we create means of communication. Everything (that isn’t food and water and shelter) is a means of communication. Newspaper, books, music, television and most recently the internet. Every single one of those items allow person A to somehow connect with person B. Again these are fundamental to our emotional well being.

    You say that a “60" flat screen tv’s and home theatre systems” are generally useless except when you have a huge viewing party. You basically make my point for me. It “might” be useful in the future. That is the essence of software/feature bloat. You buy it not because you think you need a 60” TV but because you think that in the future it “might” be useful. That is the vein running through my article. Moving aside the fact that we may not need powerful internet connections the justification we give when we do get it, is that it “might” be useful at some unknown point in the future.

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