What The Public Thinks

Narrative campaigns that resonate with an audience on a personal level and offer clear, compelling messages make the strongest impression. Therefore, communicators need to understand what motivates their target audience, what people know and don’t know, what people believe is true or important. Surveys can help communicators better understand their target population.

In November 2009, the Free Press National Poll on Internet Usage and Net Neutrality was commissioned to explore how the American public views the Internet, including both its economic and social function, and the issue of net neutrality. We summarize the results below. Although unfamiliar with the term net neutrality, the majority of polltakers overwhelmingly recognized it as the guiding principle of the Internet and wanted to keep it that way.

Internet Usage

• More than 75% of the public have access to the Internet in their home; some 90% of these connections are high speed.
• Almost 70% of home users access the Internet through a wireless connection and spend over five hours a week online for personal, non-work related activities.
• Of those with Internet at home, 15% spend over 20 hours online per week for personal use. Of the 25% who do not have access to the Internet at home, or who do not have a high-speed connection, the numbers are split: 37% state that they do not desire these services, and 33% state that they want access but cannot afford it.
• Among respondents under 40 years old, 70% reported frequently reading news online, 61% reported frequently watching videos online, 60% reported frequent use of social networking sites, and 60% said they regularly search for jobs online.

Views on ISPs, Costs vs. Services, and Regulation

• As is evident in other national samples, AT&T remains the nation's leading ISP, with 20% of home subscribers saying they are customers of the telecommunications giant. Comcast is the second largest ISP in terms of subscribers.
• Close to 64% of those with Internet in their homes said they get access through one of the big four telecommunications companies (AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon), rather than from a local or regional provider. 
• The public tends to have a favorable view of their current telephone company, cable or satellite provider, mobile provider, and ISP. AT&T was favored by the majority of respondents, followed closely by Verizon. Of the major ISPs, Comcast rated least favorable with only 35% in support.
• When asked about ISP satisfaction, respondents are most concerned with cost and choice and least concerned with customer support.
• Respondents were not in favor of paying more for faster service. More than 80% of the public stated that even if they had access to faster service than what they currently subscribe to, they would not pay more to secure it.
• Almost 50% believe that the Internet is a public service regulated by the government, with slightly less than 50% stating it is a resource owned by private companies.
• When asked about regulation, more than 50% of the public argued that, as a private resource, the Internet should not be regulated by the federal government.
• Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that all Web sites should be treated the same without interference by ISPs.

Net Neutrality

• More than 80% of the public had neither seen nor heard anything about net neutrality. Yet core net neutrality concerns such as rising costs, the lack of small business protections, consumer restrictions, and the preferential treatment of ISP supported sites all rated as key concerns.
• After learning the definition of net neutrality, public support for it stood at 53% versus 30% opposed. After hearing four positive messages and three negative messages associated with net neutrality, support increased to 67%, while opposition decreased to 24%.

Concerns and Priorities

• The public is most concerned with keeping Internet access affordable, ensuring online advantages for small businesses, and expanding Internet access to poor communities.
• The opposition's frequently cited concern that video traffic slows down connection speed for all consumers also resonates, with more than 55% of the public responding they are concerned about this.
• Although respondents supported net neutrality arguments, including treating all Web sites the same, preventing ISPs from slowing down Web sites that don't pay a fee, expanding access to rural areas, allowing international competition, and ensuring fast download speeds, they felt that reliability, privacy, and affordability were paramount.
• Privacy issues, such as being spied on online, rated the highest with almost 80% of the public expressing concern.


Those who responded to the November 2009 poll generally had a favorable view of their ISP, but were split in their view of the government’s role with regard to the Internet. Therefore, it is important for communicators to learn the opinion ratings for policy makers and governing bodies before deciding which political personalities, if any, should be associated with an open Internet campaign. For example, although President Obama is an ardent supporter of the open Internet, low approval ratings at the national and local level may make him a problematic spokesperson for the cause.

It is important to remember that although most consumers care about cost and choice, they generally do not want to pay more for better coverage than what they now receive. Despite their favorable view of ISPs, Americans overwhelmingly agree that net neutrality should be the guiding principle for the Internet. Although the term is still relatively unfamiliar among Americans, when described in detail, the public believes that their ISP should treat all Internet traffic equally.

In response to the current economic situation, individuals are primarily concerned with the role that the Internet can play in supporting small businesses and creating jobs. Only privacy outranked the importance of reliability and affordability of Internet access, which was paramount to all other service concerns.

Understanding the public’s view of the Internet, ISPs, and net neutrality is just the beginning. From there, communicators must determine the scope and funding realities of a campaign. Once a campaign’s capacity is established, additional information on core and persuadable audiences can further narrow the narrative needed and help define the appropriate frames for messaging, as we will explore in the next chapter.