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The Rickety Smartphone Bridge

As a point of connectivity for low-income populations, the phone is less useful, more expensive, and ultimately more treacherous than broadband.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: zerega/Flickr)

When the data came back on how American Internet connectivity changed between 1997 and 2014 — the information compiled at the Broadband Data Portal, a partnership between the University of Iowa and Arizona State University — a lot of it made sense on a gut level. Urban areas were more quickly connected than rural; richer areas had faster speeds than poorer ones; on the community level, there were large demographic disparities between those who had access and those who didn’t. All of that is evidence of our digital divide, but we’d heard about this stuff before.

There was one finding that seemed odd to the researchers pouring over the statistics, however.

After rapid Internet growth between 2008 and 2011, the line flattened out between 2011 and 2013. But, during the plateau, there was an increase in mobile phone usage. This suggested those first choosing between ports of connectivity were choosing the mobile option. And when the data was examined, that theory checked out.

“[In Chicago-based data] smartphone-only use really grew in some of the lower income neighborhoods. It didn’t grow equally everywhere.”

“A lot of these new [smartphone] adopters couldn’t afford the computer or broadband connection at home,” says Arizona State University’s Karen Mossberger, the Broadband Data Portal study’s lead researcher. “[In Chicago-based data] smartphone-only use really grew in some of the lower income neighborhoods. It didn’t grow equally everywhere.”

This hints at a bigger problem. The people choosing between smartphone connectivity and home connectivity are, well, the people who are forced into making a choice: those without the income necessary for both. And while it may seem like access is access, it’s not. “It’s kind of the glass half empty, glass half full thing,” Mossberger says. “[Smartphones] give people personal access who would have to wait to get it at a library, but there are also some disadvantages.”

Some disadvantages are easy to understand. Smartphones are awkward to use for anything that requires more than a simple scroll or double-tap. Mossberger tells me she just tried booking a flight on her phone, and it was “really frustrating” — probably something we can all relate to. But there’s a difference between subtly annoying and a massive roadblock to survival. “So many [government services] have gone online, and sometimes you’re required to fill out forms online,” Mossberger says. “Or apply for jobs, email back about jobs, follow up what your kids are doing in school, to look up information. There are limits.”

Price is another component that makes the smartphone less of a hardy structure closing the digital divide and more of one of those wobbly Indiana Jones rope bridges. Perhaps there are better deals for the savvy customer, but the average cost of U.S. broadband in 2014 was $55 a month. Meanwhile, a Big Four cell phone plan with 2 gigs of data per month is between $55 and $65, not including overage charges. The service is both worse and ultimately more expensive. Sure, the former requires some extra hardware (a laptop, which can be had for $100, and whatever silly cost telecom companies charge for initial install), but the higher monthly price and whatever overage charges users get snagged by during usage mean that the two even out pretty quickly.

“Consequently, mobile only Internet users become, in many ways, second-class citizens online.”

A survey published by Cowen & Co. late last year shows American cell phone customers are paying more overage charges than ever before, with more than one-quarter of AT&T users and 20 percent of Verizon customers paying an overage charge in the previous six months. The people that are most often paying them are the ones who choose the plans with the least data. And why do they choose that option? Because they don’t have the money for higher-cost plans.

When they don’t have enough money to pay those extra charges, they lose service.

Smartphones should not be criticized for getting more people online. But using mobile connectivity as the same check in the “yes” box as home Internet, as if access is a binary question, is wrong. When the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration paints the shift to a “mobile Internet explosion” in a positive light to suggest that the digital divide is diminishing, that’s problematic.

In Jonathan Donner’s book After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet, he quotes from a review written by Phillip Napoli and Jonathan Obar, who looked through a series of articles about mobile access and concluded that “[w]hile mobile Internet access may address the basic issue of getting individuals who previously did not have any form of Internet access online, the differences between mobile and PC-based forms of Internet access can reinforce and perhaps even exacerbate, inequities in digital skill sets, online participation, and even content creation.” They go on to write, “[c]onsequently, mobile only Internet users become, in many ways, second-class citizens online.”