An internet connection has, in recent years, shifted from a luxury, to a near-necessity, to a human right. In 2003 the United Nations, by way of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), added an internet connection to its list of Human Rights. So why do we pay exorbitant rates for it as compared to other first world nations?
To get first-hand knowledge, last month I made two changes to my mobile lifestyle; that is I:
1.) downgraded my cell phone plan and cut it off from the web and
2.) switched the default search provider on all my internet-connected devices from Google to Bing.
My experience with Bing in place of Google will be the subject of another article, but in this article I’d like to share what it has been like to not have an internet connection on my smartphone.
In a word, it has been made my device less useful and thus myself less connected. I am not an avid user of social media or a voracious consumer of web news, so it has not been as limiting as I first feared. Granted, a cellphone's original feature was making phone calls. Then came SMS. Following those, offline apps akin to PDA functions such as calendars and checklists were introduced to mobile phones, culminating in what are now called "feature phones."
While not as constraining as I first expected, not having a web connection on the go has limited me in several real ways. For example, I had to let friends and family know that SMS and phone calls were the only methods of communication they could use to reach me. Many millennials take for granted that there are a plethora of alternatives to text messaging such as Viber, WhatsApp, Skype, Telegram, etcetera.
In places outside America, unlimited text messaging is far less common and so users elsewhere often turn to these solutions to keep their cell phone bill low. Here in the States, an internet connection is oftentimes the largest portion of one's cell phone bill and cost-minded users stay away from streaming web video as well as the downloading of large files such as app updates. Perhaps the most troubling realization for me personally was my lack of access to Google Maps while on the go. It has some functionality in the home for planning one's trip; for example I had to take the train this week for business training and used Google Maps before my departure to plan my commute.
However, upon departing from the training center back to the train station I got lost due to being in an unfamiliar place and heavy rainfall obstructing street signage. I went to pull out my phone to open the Google Maps app but much to my chagrin I realized that I’d disabled my web connection for this very experiment. From there, I had to make my way to a neighboring college and borrow a paper map to locate the nearest train station. It’s funny how many centuries we as a society used paper maps for and took them for granted as the ultimate solution to a traveler’s problem.
Like many other tools and industries, the internet has disrupted mapmaking in a major way and a majority of people now depend on Google Maps for their needs. Of course, there are alternatives like Bing Maps and HERE Maps as well as dedicated GPS devices such a those made by Garmin and Rand McNally, but these cater to a niche market when compared to Google's massive market share--much like it has in search. (Click here to read an article regarding that monopoly.)
Internet connected mobile phones can be very empowering. In recent years, we have heard from many non-profits, perhaps most notably the Gates Foundation, about how technology can revolutionize the Third World. I got just the smallest taste of how true that message is when I was cut off from the massive store of information that is the World Wide Web.