Digital Life: ‘Nobody’s got to use the internet.’ Let’s at least debate that

Internet access, like here at the Johnson County Library, has become a popular library service. Should home internet access be seen as being as essential as electricity?

Internet access, like here at the Johnson County Library, has become a popular library service. Should home internet access be seen as being as essential as electricity? File photo by John Sleezer [email protected]

“Nobody’s got to use the internet.”

That’s an interesting notion.

U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, made the statement to a constituent pounding him for letting the companies that sell internet connections collect web surfing data from customers — most profitably for sale to advertisers.

Yet the congressman’s declaration that internet use falls below the level of necessity is worth pondering at least as much as the debate over consumer privacy versus corporate interests.

Is the internet a luxury we could do without? If government decides you are entitled to internet, is a connection at the library enough? Or does that segregate the poor to wait in line for a computer while the rest of us connect at home?

If you need home internet, will dial-up cut it? Is a 5-megabit connection — enough for email, but lousy for streaming services — adequate?

Any need for reliable Wi-Fi or an Ethernet plug clearly falls below priorities like food, shelter and medical care. (A fundamental right to health insurance remains controversial.) Most people alive today survived just fine in a time before the internet.

Still, it’s absurd to think life in the digital age offers the same possibilities without a way to go online. For most of us, even a week offline feels wildly impractical (and yet awfully tempting). Service ain’t cheap. Between cellphone and home internet bills, it’s easy to pay more than $100 a month.

Kansas City’s relatively lucky. Google Fiber debuted here in 2012 with the first industrial-strength broadband sold to homes. AT&T followed suit. Time Warner Cable, now Spectrum, juiced up its speeds.

That flood of new broadband prompted an examination of the city’s divide between internet haves and have-nots.

Google Fiber would eventually deliver free internet service to residents of several public housing complexes. A handful of groups, notably Connecting for Good with its ad hoc Wi-Fi networks and hand-me-down computers, worked to narrow the digital divide.

Libraries stepped up. Access to the internet is now one of the most popular things they offer. At Olathe’s libraries, patrons come about 32,000 times a year to hook up. At Johnson County Library branches, it’s about 660,000 times. The Kansas City Public Library connects people to the internet more than 850,000 times a year. Across the Mid-Continent Public Library system, it’s nearly 1 million.

About one in four Americans doesn’t have broadband at home. Nearly half of households with incomes below $30,000 a year do without.

The Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration called 25 megabits per second — almost double the current national average — “table stakes” for participating in modern life. The new head of the FCC has spoken about more universal web access, but he’s also revoked the participation of nine internet service providers in a program subsidizing hookups for the poor.

That’s where the issue gets tough — whether to tax some customers to underwrite internet connections for those who can’t afford to pay full freight, or for the far more expensive work of running lines into small towns and farmhouses.

We do it with electricity. And with phone service.

Still to come is a national conversation about whether America agrees with Sensenbrenner that nobody’s got to use the internet.