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What Helsinki Can Teach America about the Internet

Sunday, June 14, 2015 0:12
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In 1998, famed and revered economist Paul Krugman penned the following words: “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

As a standalone quote, it’s somewhat out of context; Krugman was asked to write a piece from the perspective of someone writing in 2098. Still, Krugman predicted that folks in the future might not think too much—if anything—of the Internet.

Most people would probably agree he was completely wrong on this particular account.

Fast-forward to 2015, and it’s quite apparent that the Internet is here to stay, which is probably an understatement. In fact, many leading voices on the global stage—including folks like Michelle Obama—are going as far as saying that unrestricted, uncensored high-speed Internet access should be treated by all countries as a universal human right. Indeed, the United Nations concluded the same thing all the way back in 2011.

This makes sense, considering that the Internet makes all kinds of information readily available. And thanks to the rise of e-commerce, the Internet economy also provides a slew of new opportunities, with recent research indicating that the global Internet-based B2C market hit $1.5 trillion last year (that’s trillion, with a t). We can assume that number will climb even higher this year, and the year after that, as more and more people become connected.

So If Everyone Needs the Internet…

While there have been some pushes in America for free Internet, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them have really panned out. Sure, you can go to places like Starbucks or your local library and hop on a broadband connection without too much trouble. (Yes, tons of cafes, bars and other institutions offer free Internet as well.) But, for the most part, most Americans are forced to open up their wallets and foot the bill if they want to access a tool that’s pretty much a daily necessary in 2015—within the confines of their homes, at least.

Which is pretty much the opposite approach the government in Helsinki, Finland, is taking to connectivity. Believe it or not, the Finnish capital city is nearly blanketed with free Wi-Fi hotspots. And they’re not just the kind of hotspots you can connect to and access content like it was 1997. No, these Wi-Fi connections—which don’t require users to input any personal identification, but do features warnings about the dangers of public networks—are plug-and-play solutions that give users the ability to download and upload content quicker than many Americans can do in their own homes. You can even stream high-definition video!

Will we ever see free, universal Internet in America? That’s certainly hard to say. After all, telecom companies most certainly like billing the vast majority of Americans for their high-speed connections every month, and making exclusive deals with municipalities, as Fayetteville recently did with Time Warner. Others argue that if Internet is given for “free,” consumers then become the product, so to speak, and search engines like Google (who capture customer’s information) will be the ones laughing on their way to the bank. Furthermore, emerging technologies such as driverless cars will rely more and more heavily on access to ubiquitous, high-speed Internet as time goes on, which means it’s more important than ever that it becomes available to the masses.

But it remains to be seen how any of this will play out—assuming it plays out at all.

Internet for Everyone

Beyond Helsinki, some juggernauts in Silicon Valley—including Facebook, whose project seeks to provide connectivity to two-thirds of the world’s population estimated to be without it; and Google, whose Project Loon seeks to do the same thing by delivering Internet via high-hanging, Internet-connected balloons—are seeking to disrupt the Internet landscape as we know it.

Because information helps us to collectively grow into a better species, giving everyone the ability to access the Internet should be something that lawmakers continue to direct lots of focus on. Helsinki’s already proven that free, high-speed Internet is possible, and it’s time for the rest of the world to follow suit.


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