Few would disagree that the internet has become an indispensable tool for students. The use of online content, video, audio, pictures, electronic books, databases, learning management systems, and library access are just some of the notable reasons students require an internet connection. As content becomes more media rich, broadband internet speeds are essential.
There are few options available to connect to the internet. Cable and telecommunication companies enjoy a monopoly status. Most locales have a limited choice on internet providers, with prices rarely much different between different service providers. One may opt for cable or DSL for broadband service, both costing about the same when one compares apples to apples. Simply put, there is no real marketplace competition for internet services.
The Chairman of the FCC has been a vocal critic of the cost of internet access, and has lobbied for government intervention. Whether government policy can offer a remedy is unknown. Government policy can sometimes influence market prices to protect consumers, but the devil is in the details. Regulating the internet like a utility comes with its own set of issues. Likely, increased market competition is a more attractive solution.
One reason often cited for the high access costs are the costs of building and maintaining infrastructure. The cost of running fiber optic cable for thousands of miles is a big investment. But the question remains, is that investment cost ever recouped and the price then drops? The short answer is yes to the former, and no to the latter. If the investment costs were never recouped, there would be no investment. Yet, the cost of internet access remains steady and rising.
If internet access enjoyed the benefits of a genuine market economy, there would be other providers entering the market, and thus there would be real price competition. The future of internet is likely to be some type of broadband wireless, which would greatly reduce the infrastructure costs for new market entrants. To date, the cellular companies are pretty much maxed out with 4G speeds, which are fine for smartphones, but not for general home use. Some other wireless technology is needed.
There are seeds of hope being planted with a new technology being fostered by the founder of the now defunct Aereo, Chet Kanojia. A good primer on this new router technology, the Starry Station, can be found here. While this new service will likely face legal hurdles, consumers stand to benefit from increased competition, genuine choice, and ultimately lower prices. Students in particular would benefit from more economical internet access charges, and given the essential nature of the internet today as a learning tool, that is much needed.
Hopefully this idea penetrates, and also spurs more companies to offer reasonable alternatives to the cable and telecommunication companies control over internet access. Analogous to a public utility, the internet is an indispensable service in the 21st century. The runaway market price with few options for consumers, particularly students, begs for a market solution.