Is The Internet Officially A Basic Utility Now?

    January 16, 2012

Winter seems to have finally remembered that it has somewhere to be this year – here – so it’s time to dig the space heater out of the closet and get your warm on. Or, at least, that’s what you’d expect people to do in light of the arrival of frigid climes but it turns out keeping the heat on might not be as high as it once was on the list of people’s priorities this winter.

Unless, that is, most people would prefer to huddle around their electronic devices to steal the warmth off of their over-worked processors because, given how people are spending their money on household services these days, that may be what they resort to this year.

How indispensable have your technology utilities – cell phones, Internet, etc. – become in your everyday life? How would you prioritize these expenses among traditional utilities like water, gas, and electricity? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section.

iYogi, a research initiative that examines the technology issues of today, has conducted a study that found that, among the 1100 people surveyed, 63% of people spend almost 35% more on technology bills than utility bills. For the purposes of this study, the services filed under the “technology bills” category are Internet Service Provider bills, mobile communication services, and multimedia services (cloud storage, subscriptions to Netflix-like services, etc.).

The importance of having a reliable Internet service in the home isn’t incredibly hard to grasp when you consider that “the average American home with two family members own as many as 7 IP devices.” Phones, tablets, laptops, online streaming services – these technological implements add up quickly. As you can imagine, the quantity of IP devices increases as the amount of household members grows. Households with 3 to 7 members may have upwards of 11 IP devices. That the quantity of devices doesn’t increase commensurately with the amount of household members suggests that some of these IP devices are likely shared, the Internet (since you can connect multiple devices onto one wireless network).

iYogi explains how the constantly increasing inventory of PCs, tablets, printers, scanners, cameras, and digital music players “is driving a new consumer demand for tech support services.” Add to the mix “smart phones, gaming devices, and Internet-enabled televisions and set top boxes are becoming a critical part of the home.”

Indeed we are in the thick of the digital age, so now that American households are beginning to fully weave Internet and mobile communication into their everyday lives in such dedicated ways, have online services become as necessary as water and electric utilities? Considering how many households have become seemingly dependent on the Internet, it looks like it could shape up that way.

Perhaps the biggest aspect to consider now that Americans are wired to the teeth these days is: how much is all of this costing us? iYogi says that “the average monthly expense [on mobile services] was found to be $94.” Add to that the average $19 per month that people fork over to download games, apps, music and the like and you’ve turned a pricey bill into a more pricey bill. As you can imagine, “the increasing popularity of mobile devices including smartphones and tablets is only likely to see increased spendings on mobile communication in the future.”

And then there’s the actual ISP bill. iYogi found that 58% of people can spend anywhere between $20 and $180 on monthly ISP service bills. (An aside: it’s probably not surprising that people would spend a lot of money on their Internet service, but that’s a really big range of expense. That’s like the difference between saying “I want to eat one hot dog for lunch” and “I want to win the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.” But I digress.) While the cost of subscribing to an ISP will depend on the data plan, the sum of money spent inflates as you include Internet-based services like Netflix. Corroborating what we have previously reported, this change in habit “has seen TV take a backseat as an entertainment medium.”

As if the technology tab wasn’t high enough, now people are beginning to pay for yet another service: cloud-based storage. While 30% of people currently spend an average of $10 per month for cloud services, iYogi expects this figure “is only going to increase as comfort levels with these new services go up.”

So given all of this habituated use of online services, is it valid to say that the Internet is an essential utility – at least inside of what iYogi describes as “digital homes” – as opposed to an elective commodity? Granted, nobody needs the Internet to stay alive the way they need heat to cook their food or water to drink and bathe. But people, I’d argue, have re-created the Internet as a need insofar it has become the linchpin of our communication infrastructure.

And it’s not as if people have recently realized they have stacks of extra cash laying around and decided to get themselves a Home 2.0. I don’t think you can make the case that people have more expendable income because economic growth has been near-flatlining in the United States for several years now. There’s been a nudge of economic recovery in the past year or so, but hardly enough to generate enough excess income in American households where they can spend the money on “superfluous” amenities like smartphones and high-speed Internet.

It’s not that people want the Internet anymore; more and more, people need the Internet.

Whether technology finds a space in an updated version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs doesn’t matter: people are increasingly becoming dependent upon the Internet. And given how integrated the Internet is to our lives, a lack of it would drastically change the way we live these days. Sure, some bugbears will contest this notion with antiquated protests like, “We were getting along fine before the Internet so we can easily do without it now.” That’s true, we were doing fine, but we were also getting along fine before indoor plumbing, penicillin, and a national highway system but does anybody truly want to return to a way of life when those now-standard amenities don’t exist? I doubt it. It’s not about the bare minimum of resources on which humans can continue to survive – it’s about what improves the quality of life.

As for the future, iYogi doesn’t foresee the proliferation of Internet-enabled households slowing down anytime soon, so again, at what point does the Internet become a necessity and less of a luxury? Could you go without the Internet these days or is it as necessary as warm water and reliable light sources? Do you see the prevalence of Internet in our way of life as a good thing or a bad thing? Share your opinions in the comments below.