In the recently released How Much Information? 2009 study of information consumption by Americans, Roger Bonn and James Short of the Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego explain why the Internet is now considered more essential than Cable TV. Their study compares the two media in three areas of information consumption: two-way communication, entertainment, and research.
Two-way communication is self explanatory. Before the Internet, the only ways to have a two-way exchange without being in the same room were telephone and first-class letters. The Internet adds multiple additional methods, including email, social networking, and instant messaging. We estimate that Americans averaged 1.6 hours per day conducting two-way communication, of which 57 percent was via the Internet, with the rest of the time on cellular or landline telephones. Correspondingly, the Internet provides 79 percent of the bytes and 73 percent of the words in two- way communication. The Internet is so important for two-way communications because of its unique technical characteristics, including a nearly universal network, very low variable costs, and the ability to handle both real-time and delayed activity.
The Internet’s contribution to pure entertainment information is very small: less than 2 percent, whether measured by hours, bytes, or words. The reasons stem from entertainment’s dominance by video activities: TV shows, movies, and computer games. Video requires very high bandwidth, and Internet speed to most Americans is still far below what is needed to watch conventional live television. A standard TV program requires approximately 4 megabits per second of bandwidth, while most Internet connections can deliver only a fraction of that or less at peak times. Broadband providers in many areas do offer premium-priced service levels, but the speed is not sufficient for live TV, for several reasons. Even when the “last mile” to a house is capable of adequate speeds, this is based on statistical multiplexing, meaning that it assumes that only a fraction of users will be operating at this speed at the same time. If everyone turned on their “Internet TV” at 7pm, many parts of the network would be unable to handle the load. On the other hand, video on the Internet is growing rapidly. The popularity of video download sites indicates that demand exists, even with lower visual quality than standard television.
In our third and final use category, research and current events, the Internet provides 23 percent of our hours and 31 percent of our INFOW. It connects to vast amounts of factual information, making it very good for current events that can be delivered in the form of text. We classify about one third of television programming as research or current events (including not only news but also reality shows, talk shows, and the like), so television dominates the total bytes in this category. Given the much higher bandwidth of TV, the Internet provides only 1.3 percent of our research/current event bytes.