Data is now a basic necessity like water and electricity

Or is that just what Netflix wants us to believe?

Data is now a basic necessity like water and electricity

In this file photo, a person uses Netflix in Palo Alto, Calif | Image: Paul Sakuma / AP/Press Association Images

Access to Netflix should be a human right — or at least that’s what Netflix would have us believe.

In a letter written to the Federal Communications Commission in the US, but expressing opinions applicable globally, the film and TV streaming company said: “Data caps (especially low data caps) and usage-based pricing discourage a consumer’s consumption of broadband, and may impede the ability of some households to watch Internet television in a manner and amount that they would like.”

For most people Netflix is something they subscribe to in addition to watching traditional broadcast television, but for a growing number of viewers, Netflix and services like it are becoming their main viewing option. As more and more people eschew watching linear television channels in favour of binge-watching the latest season of House of Cards, the question of data and specifically limits on that data are becoming an important issue.


Netflix

According to the TAM ratings for July, Irish adults watched on average just over three hours of television every day in July. For those watching free-to-air channels like RTE and TV3, or with a subscription to Sky, Virgin Media or Eir, the amount of TV being watched does not effect the amount of money they pay. It is essentially an all-you-can-view deal.

That is not the case with Netflix. As well as paying the €7.99 basic subscription fee, viewers are required to also have a decent broadband connection in order to stream the content, and make sure they have enough data as part of their plan to ensure they can watch the amount of content they want.

If we take the average Irish adult as an example, a Netflix subscriber would have watched around 95 hours of TV and film during the month of July. In order to stream this much content in standard definition would require a data limit of 66GB. Watching it in high definition (which requires a Standard subscription costing €9.99) would mean chewing through up to 285GB of data for the month. For Ultra HD (which requires a €11.99 subscription), 95 hours of TV would constitute 665GB of data.

And that is before you do anything else online like browsing the web, sending emails, downloading photos, or any of the other dozens of things people now do on a daily basis through their laptops, smartphones and tablets.


Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in the Netflix original House of Cards

For those lucky enough to have access to the fibre broadband network in Ireland, then data limits are not a major problem, as most packages today promise unlimited downloads, which means you can stream all seven seasons of The Good Wife back-to-back and not have to worry about reaching your limit.

However, in Ireland there is a great divide between the haves and the have nots when it comes to broadband, and for those without access to superfast connections, data limits are a real problem.

According to the most recent Central Statistics Office figures, 38% of households in Ireland get online using a mobile broadband connection, a figure which rises to 50% in the west of the country where access to fixed line broadband is typically not as good.

For people relying on these mobile broadband connections, streaming the average amount of television using a service like Netflix is simply not possible, with data limits of at most 55GB imposed on such plans.

While saying that access to data is as important as water and electricity might seem hyperbolic, in a world where over 70% of the Irish population now uses a smartphone and 64% have a Facebook account, it is clear that access to the internet is becoming a must have for people rather than a luxury.

Netflix app

As the Irish economy becomes increasingly reliant on digital businesses, and as Irish businesses seek to plug into a global online marketplace, data is already a vital utility for businesses - but for consumers, it is fast becoming just as important.

From parents being able to connect to family in locations across the globe through services like Skype, to students having access to the wealth of information available online, data is at the heart of an increasing part of our everyday lives.

Limiting such access is a punishment based primarily on geography, limiting the opportunities for those who cannot access unlimited broadband packages.

Of course Netflix has a big reason to push for the removal of data caps and should it succeed, the burden will fall on the internet service providers and mobile operators who provide the bandwidth people use. However according to Netflix’s letter to the FCC, congestion isn’t a problem for ISPs the the reason they impose data caps "as a way to align consumers’ use of the network with what they pay.”


Netflix original series Making a Murderer

The price of data is dropping but it is still not at the level of utilities like electricity or water which everyone sees as a basic necessity to live. For data to reach this point, prices will have to reach a level where the vast majority of people can afford to have an unlimited supply of it.

While some of the problem is down to the broadband infrastructure in Ireland, it is also down to the way we think about data, as a luxury rather than a necessity — and that is something which is going to change radically in the next decade and Netflix may finally gets its wish of unlimited data for all

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