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On Friday, my wife and I returned from a two-week vacation in Central and South America. Our cruise ship sailed from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, stopping at ports in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Colombia. The trip included an instructive reminder of how consumers' Internet usage is shaped by price plans.

Cruise ships contain many modern conveniences, one of which is Internet access via WiFi. Typically, each ship has both an Internet cafe and several hot spots for convenient access. Prices are pretty consistent across cruise lines. The Holland America ship we sailed on provided Internet access "as you go" ($ .75 per minute), a 100-minute block ($ .55 per minute), or a 250-minute block ($ .40 per minute). I purchased a couple 250-minute blocks, since I am a heavy user.

It doesn't matter what device you use on board: desktop, laptop, smart phone, or tablet. If it uses a WiFi connection, you pay a per-minute rate because of the satellite connection.

While aboard the MS Statendam, I accessed to tease coworkers and friends who were working hard while I relaxed poolside on the Lido Deck. The experience reminded me -- in monetary terms -- of just how time intensive most social networking sites like Facebook are. I quickly chewed through the minutes I purchased.

The old school approach: you read and created email messages offline, and then signed in online to send and receive email messages. Then, you signed off. It was a quick "in and out" online.

Today's typical online session: you sign into Facebook to browse your timeline for messages to comment upon. Next, you stay signed in to browse the Walls of specific friends, because Facebook uses a formula to selectively display only some from all of your friends. Then, you spend even more time signed into Facebook while reading articles at other websites which you friends mentioned in their Facebook status messages.

Compared to email, Facebook is time intensive. This is good for Facebook but not good for consumers in situations paying for Internet access by the minute. Most consumers access the Internet from home (or work) via unlimited access plans. (Not so for mobile phone access.) Right now, that unlimited access is good for both Facebook and for consumers. Change that unlimited access and you quickly change consumers' online behavior.


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