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Summary:

With network neutrality poised to make a potential return to Capitol Hill, the latest surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center will be s…

Laptop and money
photo: 1suisse

With network neutrality poised to make a potential return to Capitol Hill, the latest surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center will be seized as ammo for those who don’t want to to see a tiered pipeline take hold on digital platforms.

Simply put, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to utilize the internet by every measure, according to the PRC’s Internet & American Life Projects (check out all the data). Based on a trio of phone surveys done from late 2009 through September of this year, the numbers show higher-income households go online more often, do more things online and own more web-connected devices.

For instance, with regard to digital content: 70 percent of those in households of over $75,000 per year own iPods or other MP3 players, compared with 42 percent of those living in less well-off homes. In households that make over $150,000, 55 percent have paid for digital content, compared with 42 percent in lesser-income households. Other stats gauge everthing from online banking to news consumption. Even iPads and other tablets, in just 9 percent of $75k-plus households, are three times as likely to show up there than in lesser-income homes.

The underlying presumption of these numbers is that poorer people cannot afford the access to the internet. There’s probably a whole lot more nuance to what’s going on here, but no matter: rest assured these numbers will arm advocates for net neutrality who have long argued that without a level playing field online, the people who need to access resources most online will be the least likely to do that.

The nightmare scenario of a world where digital content can be prioritized is that certain services will be priced out of the reach of average Americans. What these Pew numbers indicate is that even in advance of such a scenario, economic factors are already shaping a digital divide in this country, one that could widen if additional cost barriers are put in place.

Let’s see how quickly the Pew data enters the debate, one that could start raging today if FCC announces that net neutrality will be on the agenda for its last meeting of the year.

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  1. Not sure I follow your logic in this opinion piece, Andrew.

    You’re speaking like the net neutrality argument hinges on or benefits from the notion that the poorer you are the less access to the internet you have. Regardless of whether the issue of internet access versus income is a valid one or not.

    The point, from my vantage, is that I — as a fairly lowly provider of content, scraping by on the cheaper hosting plans, hoping to turn it into a small business as I build up my offerings — benefit from neutral access more than tiered access. In effect, to me, net neutrality becomes a small business incubation system where even niche services stand a good chance of staying alive and having semi-predictable costs.

    By comparison, when you raise the cost of doing business on the ‘Net, you raise the level of risk aversion for both prospective business owners and content providers. Anyone who is “serious” about maintaining their market also stays risk averse. Or, you keep your costs cheap and risk losing people because of the comparatively poor network traffic priority you’re able to afford.

    And as a consumer, I feel I already have an example of what this kind of content looks like. It’s called cable TV. There’s a reason I almost never watch it anymore. And yes, sure, there’s a lot of stuff on the Internet that makes cable TV look good by comparison — the low entrance fee is hardly a gatekeeper of quality just as much as risk averse network producers are hardly a gatekeeper of quality — but I always seem to have no trouble finding much more interesting things on the Internet than I’d ever find on cable.

    I appreciate that network engineers want more freedom to prioritize how traffic flows through, there are some neat optimizations that could be done. I also know, though, that the businesses that employ those engineers are quite keen to increase their profits and have a history of providing marginal quality content and trying to edge out other content if their own material isn’t generating enough revenue. While they seem to be “getting it” in the past few years, they don’t have a good track record in this regard and I don’t trust them to continue “getting it” if tiered traffic is greenlighted.

    So, no, I don’t see what any of that has to do with the Pew research survey at all. I may give the study more credence than you, but it sounds more like you’re standing up a straw man argument.

  2. Andrew Wallenstein Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Thanks for your thoughts, random9q. My argument is pretty simple here: A digital world without net neutrality will mean more cost barriers will be erected to access all kinds of content online. If this Pew study is right that people whose socioeconomic status make them more likely to face cost barriers are less likely to utilize the internet, then the logic follows that they’ll use even less content in a tiered digital world.

  3. It appears that a simple fact has eluded the author: wealthier people have greater access to just about every product or service. I’m sure those making $75,000 are more likely to own a fancy television, or a car. Welcome to reality.

  4. I would point out that making under $75K in no way makes one “poor”!

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