Smartphones Alone Are Not Enough

Mobile phone adoption rates continue to grow rapidly among Americans of all ages. Today, as Pew Research reports, close to two-thirds of all Americans across the country carry a device around in their pockets. However, a closer look at the data reveals that while they may be a useful supplement or a stopgap solution, it is a mistake to equate the acceleration of mobile phone ownership with meaningful solutions to the digital divide for low-income Americans.

The Pew Research study on smartphone usage in the United States shows that some 13 percent of Latinos and 12 percent of Blacks, two of the most historically unconnected groups in the United States, rely on smartphones to access the Internet. And that’s only if—and it’s a big if—they own a more expensive data-enabled smartphone and can also afford mobile broadband service. Only 4 percent of White smartphone owners face these same issues.

The disparity comes into sharp focus when examining ownership and usage differences among our current generation of high school students, who represent the future of America’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy. While 88 percent of all U.S. teenagers own a mobile phone, 15 percent only have access to a basic phone without access to the Internet.

The cost of monthly service plans are prohibitive to many low-income youth and their families, and the pay-as-you-go plans come with laughably low data caps and outrageous unit economics—often three or four times more expensive per gigabyte than monthly contract plans for the same amount of data.

The difference between smartphones with Internet data plans and basic feature phones without Internet capability is often passed over when discussing the impact of mobile phones on the digital divide. However, the resulting differences of the mobile experience couldn’t be in more stark contrast.

Pew reports that of teenagers who own a mobile device with Internet access, 94 percent go online daily, while only 68 percent of teenagers who own a mobile device without Internet access go online each day—usually through computers accessed at public community centers or libraries.

So while smartphones can offer a level of access to the Internet for those who wouldn’t be online otherwise, many of the most disadvantaged and disconnected Americans either do not own smart-capable phones, or can’t afford the sufficient levels of data necessary to translate access into meaningful opportunity—whether it be for education, jobs, or financial services.

Usability and content utility present additional challenges. While there have been leaps and bounds made in how mobile content is consumed and created on smartphones, the opportunities they present users doesn"t even come close when compared to the quality and depth of experience available to those with a an Internet-connected laptop.

In short, Internet capability, data levels, and screen size are still paramount to realizing the promise of technology for evening playing fields and democratizing opportunity. Smartphones can be a stepping stone or minimum best solution for the chronically unconnected, but it is not a comprehensive solution in and of itself.

There is no doubt that in our multi-device, multi-connection world, mobile technology is a game-changer and creates tremendous productivity and social value for users. But the bottom line is that cellular technologies are simply not designed to be the primary source of how we utilize the most Internet for the longest periods of time.

Without an option that offloads a smartphone from its cellular connection to a fixed Wi-Fi connection, even the smartest phone is rendered virtually useless. It’s the equivalent of a world-class race car stranded with an empty tank on the side of the track. Both are fully-loaded, built for speed, highly expensive, and unusable at the moment.

True digital equity for all Americans will require what most of us already consider a given for over 15 years now—affordable, fast, unlimited home Internet. And a smartphone too.