For Some Without Home Broadband, Smartphones Bridge the Gap

For some Americans who don’t have a home broadband connection, smartphones are often a primary “on-ramp” to the Internet.

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Own a smartphone? Then you’re in good company, as 56% of American adults own an iPhone, Android or similar device, according to a June Pew study. That’s up significantly from the same time last year, when approximately 45% of Americans owned a smartphone. Smartphone ownership is also steadily approaching parity with the percentage of Americans who have a home broadband connection, which is currently sitting at 70%, according to Pew’s most recent study published August 26.

For many of us, smartphones are our route online when we’re out and about — or just too lazy to get off the couch. However, for a small group of Americans who don’t have a home broadband connection, smartphones are often a primary “on-ramp” to the Internet, thanks in part to affordable pay-as-you-go packages with data plans.

Indeed, Pew found that 10% of Americans have a smartphone but not a home broadband connection, meaning their phone is their primary means of accessing the Internet. There’s a racial component to this trend: Pew found that while 74% of whites have broadband at home, only 64% of blacks and 53% of latinos have a home broadband connection. However, 79% of blacks and 75% of latinos said they have either home broadband or a smartphone, a difference of 15% and 22% respectively. While smartphones are playing a role in bridging the digital divide between racial and ethnic groups, getting online only via smartphone has its disadvantages: It’s much harder to file your taxes or apply for a job on a mobile device’s tiny screen, as Pew points out in its study.

The groups most likely to have a home broadband connection or a smartphone, meanwhile, are whites (80%), those aged 18-29 (95%), the college educated (93%), those making more than $75,000 a year (95%) and suburban residents (83%).

Though the number of people with high-speed connections has been steadily rising over the past decade, there remains a surprising number of people who go without one: 20% of Americans have neither a broadband connection or a smartphone, according to Pew’s data. While some people might not see the value in high-speed internet access and others may not be able to afford it, there are still 19 million Americans who flat-out lack the option for a high-speed connection, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s latest Broadband Progress Report.

“I think one of the valuable aspects of this work is reminding people that there’s a pretty sizable chunk of the population that, when they’re at home, there’s not necessarily a device they can bring up and answer the question they have at the moment or get the information that they need or accomplish the task they need to accomplish — that it’s much more difficult for those folks,” Aaron Smith, Senior Researcher at Pew Internet Project, told TIME.

Smith was also intrigued by a counter-intuitive effect smartphones are having on the digital age gap. If we don’t include smartphones in the definition of “broadband,” then 80% of adults ages 18-29 have a broadband connection at home, while the same is true of only 43% of those above the age of 65 — a gap of 37%. However, if smartphones are included in the definition of “broadband,” the difference in broadband adoption rates between young and old users widens dramatically to 49%.

“A lot of the debate you hear about smartphones and other mobile technologies is that they’re a bridging tool that helps groups with lower levels of traditional access make up those differences,” said Smith. “And certainly, when you look at whites and nonwhites, that story comes into play. But when you look at young people versus older people and you add smartphones in, it actually makes that gap worse because so many 18-to-29-year-olds have a smartphone and so few people 65 and older have them that when you include them in the calculation, the gap between young people and old people actually gets bigger than when you didn’t have smartphones in the equation at all. It’s an interesting subversion of the conventional wisdom in a certain way.”