This is the second time that I am living in another country for a while and once again I have stumbled into a huge problem that I believe is massively under appreciated by many. I need the internet, but it’s not as ubiquitous as you’d think.
Has anyone seen the South Park episode about this? The entire United States flees to refugee camps on the west coast where there is still a bit of Internet. People wait in a cue all day for only 40 seconds of Internet. Does that sound a bit ridiculous? Well if you are a homeless person without a laptop (and except Japan probably, most homeless people do not have one) and want to use the Internet, you’ll have to cue up at the State Library in Melbourne for 15 minutes of Internet (it takes about 1 minute to load gmail, so do the math…). And that is the best deal in town as far as I know.
When I see these people (probably not all homeless) I get the same emotions that most people probably get when they see hungry people in Africa. Of course, that is not fair or rational, but it’s just easier to emphasize with for me. I completely depend on the Internet for almost everything I do and it allows me to live a fascinating life. But those 15-Minute People, as I call them, have to do everything the old fashioned way: more time consuming, more expensive., less opportunities. For example, they have to make a phone call to book a flight; that adds at least 15 dollars, plus you can’t easily compare fares. They have to find a place to live through newpaper adds; most rooms are shared online, so they miss those. And they don’t have access to all sorts of job search websites.
I can probably find the best price and book a flight in under 15 minutes, but most people can’t; there are many important tasks for people need to sit down and focus a lot longer. 15-Minute People have a serious disadvantage here. How about adding two hours of Internet per day, for everyone, to the list of government responsibilities? Or shall we just wait and see what happens if we don’t?
Anyway, I’ve been one those 15-Minute People a couple of times during my travels. I take the Internet for granted, but I have been without it quite a couple of times at great costs to productivity. It is even worse if the situation is unpredictable; if you do know for how long you will be connected, or how long it will take before you are connected again. This makes it impossible to plan anything.
I spent six months in Slovakia and I would have some weeks with and some weeks without the Internet. At the office! And with no way of predicting what would happen next. Not very practical if your work is Internet based. But I guess people kind of expect that sort of thing in Slovakia (although I think it does not have to be that way).
The biggest surprise in this respect is Australia. I was completely taken by surprise at the terrible state of the Internet over here. I was expecting more or less 99% household penetration of Internet, free wifi at hostels, the usual, but I found the opposite. Hostels will gladly charge you 4 dollars an hour and it won’t be wireless either. Many homes, even with young people, do not have an Internet connection. And in general the Internet is very slow, has download limits(!) and is expensive.
Just a comparison: at home in The Netherlands I pay 30 dollars a month for my Internet connection, plus about 15 for the phone line that you need to have with it. For that money, I can download at 20 Mbit and there is no limit to how much I download. The best deal I could find here, is 50 dollars for the Internet plus 20 for the phone. That gets me 0.5 Mbit download and a 25 GB limit per month. So that is 40 times slower for almost twice the price and you get a download limit as a bonus.
So what is causing this? Well, let’s just say Telstra (the former state company) blames crushing government regulations and most others blame Telstra for acting like a monopolist. I leave the choice to you.
The good news is that people are not happy with that and there is a lot of work going on to upgrade Australia’s physical, and equally important, organizational Internet infrastructure. The other good news is that Australia has a pretty cool system that you can use to quickly switch between providers and that the business of connecting and disconnecting people seems to be a *lot* faster than at home (it took only 3 hours to disconnect from our old provider; these things take weeks in The Netherlands, months in Slovakia).
I hope I will have a working 24/7 Internet connection at home by the time I get back from the Google Developers day, my Sydney excursion and the Burning Couch festival next week. That would great for productivity and peace of mind!