Internet access is fundamental to so much of our daily lives but it is still treated as a ‘nice-to-have’. Photo / Getty Images, File
It’s 2022. We rely on the internet like we do electricity and running water — the utilities that power our everyday lives. Yet the internet is somehow treated as a luxury.
Last week, the
people of Taumarunui were cut off from the internet for six days. Even worse, they had little indication of when it would be powered up again. Over the outage, we saw what happens when the internet is treated as a luxury. It was just another demonstration that the internet is a necessity. Like running water. Like power.
For those six days, the town of 5000 people struggled. Whether trying to pay bills online, access internet banking, keep the kids entertained, stay in touch with friends and family, or keep up with the news. Taumarunui slipped back into the 90s. Let’s be real — the internet is so much more than the luxury of chucking on Netflix, reading gags on social media or ordering Uber Eats.
Businesses couldn’t use Eftpos, take online orders, use their online systems or access email. This had big impacts on essential services, particularly for the most vulnerable. The local pharmacy struggled to process prescriptions. They were down to one phone line and had to purchase a back-up modem. ATMs even run out of cash.
Even our core systems aren’t always there to back us up when the Internet is down. Most day-to-day services we rely on are now fundamentally tied to the internet to work correctly.
When there is a water or power outage, resources are dedicated to fixing it almost instantly. Think of the broken water pipes in Wellington where whole roads have been shut down causing chaos to ensure the fastest possible fix. If the internet was considered the true utility that it is, we would’ve seen modems in Taumarunui lighting up much faster than six days.
For some time, the town had no idea when their internet would be restored. Under a utility framework, we would expect better and faster repairs, clear timeframes and responsibilities, and consequences for not meeting them.
To be clear, this isnt an exercise in pointing the finger at big telcos or the network suppliers. They do their best to provide the country with the internet every day — it’s admirable. There is no doubt that outages happen, but a utility framework would work in favor of the likes of Chorus, where appropriate resourcing would be considered to make sure the internet is treated like other utility networks.
Everyone should have access to the internet, all the time. So many services push us there. Telehealth services, job hunting, e-learning for students, online banking, not to mention important information on Covid-19 and government assistance. The outage in Taumarunui shows the internet is such a vital, basic component of our lives. We must be able to rely on it.
That’s not the case for everyone though. This is another thing that having a utility framework would help. Currently, a struggling family can get a hardship grant from the government to help pay bills. But, they are unable to use the money to pay for their internet. They can use it for other vital things – power, water and gas.
If the internet was treated as a utility, we would work damn hard to make sure everyone could access it. We’d say goodbye to the digital divide. That’s the gap between someone who can switch on Netflix and watch anything in 4K, and those who struggle to load an email. The digital divide is the distance between kids in schools not having the technology to study with when others in more privileged positions wouldn’t give this a second thought. A six-day outage like this just widens the gap.
Under a utility framework, we would expect that everyone in Aotearoa has excellent internet coverage, just as we would expect quick repairs. And we would expect struggling families to have the assistance they need to pay for this necessity.
A lot can be gained if we rethink our collective attitude toward the internet, and treat it like the essential component of our daily lives that it really is. The first step to making this happen is to re-think regulation to support a utility framework. Now is the time.
• Andrew Cushen is the acting chief executive of InternetNZ, the home of .nz.