Thoughts on Broadband, Mobile Access and the Digital Divide

By Andromeda Yelton | The Bobbi Newman / Jason Griffey blog debate on mobile access the digital divide got me thinking. What do we mean when we say "mobile access": is that Jason's iPhone (that gave us directions around Providence last Friday, complete with FourSquare tips) or my paint-chipped-off, sans-camera, three-year-old (but web-enabled!) Samsung?

Well, I say "web-enabled", but more accurate would be "web-enabled, I think". I've never used it that way, because I don't have a data plan and don't relish the mysterious and arbitrary charges I'd incur, and why would I want to look at the web on that tiny low-res screen anyway?

Clearly "mobile access" isn't a monolithic idea.  It's a spectrum of devices and their capabilities but also usage patterns: both the knowledge and the inclination to be connected this way.  I decided to dig into Pew Forum data to get a better picture.

Although a recent Economist article (via Librarian Chat) says that demand for public library computers is growing as the economy forces people to cancel their broadband subscriptions, mobile access in some form is startlingly high. 85% of all Americans -- 96% of 18-to-29-year-olds -- own a cell phone, although the Pew report does not break down those phones by capabilities.  76% of Americans own either a laptop or a desktop.  78% of Americans -- 78%! -- own two or more of the devices investigated (which include not only phones and laptops but also ereaders, game consoles, and other internet-enabled devices).  There are important, sometimes large, and (unfortunately) unsurprising gaps by race, income, and education level, but even in the most disadvantaged groups cell phone and computer ownership is typically the majority, and rising.

But what if we look at use?  There's a group of always-on digital obsessives who own a variety of devices, produce content as well as consume it, and use a range of non-voice features and applications on their phone.  If you're reading this, chances are good you're in this group. It's 8% of the adult population There are other mobile internet users with different, perhaps less avid, patterns of use, but all of them together are only 39% of the adult population.

They're not, by the way, necessarily the 39% you might guess, and they're rapidly changing. In 2008, using 2006 data, Eszter Hargittai noted that white or Asian males, especially more affluent ones, were more likely to be avid web users, even after she controlled for basic Internet access. That's still true to some extent: the Pew Forum's highly engaged 8% tend to be male, highly educated, and in their 30s.  But in 2010, "minority cell owners are significantly more likely than whites to use most non-voice data applications on their mobile phones.  They also take advantage of a wider range of mobile phone features compared with whites."  This includes technical capabilities like picture-taking and sharing, but also cell-phone-mediated use of social media for networking, local happenings, and political engagement.

Still, all the mobile users -- even the reluctant ones -- sum to only 39% of adults. "61% are anchored to stationary media; though many have broadband and cell phones, coping with access is often too much for them".  Except among African-Americans, whose use has expanded dramatically over the last year, home broadband penetration is stalled around 66%.  No doubt this is partly a function of the economy, but it's also a function of interest: "Contrary to what some might suspect, non-internet users are less likely than current users to say the government should place a high priority on the spread of high-speed connections." Non-users are much less likely than internet users to feel their lack of access puts them at a disadvantage, and much more likely to feel online content is not relevant to them.  Only 10% say they would like to start using the internet; most of them would need help to do so.

All of which is to say: access speed isn't the limiting factor on internet use.  User experience concerns may be one -- and I wish the study had gone into depth on the different types of mobile devices people use for internet access -- but even more so are questions of ability and autonomy, relevance, and interest.

My takeaway is that broadband advocacy isn't a good place for librarians to focus our finite energies.  Instead we can best empower people for a cutting-edge world by relying on traditional skills of outreach and education.  If we can demonstrate to patrons the value of online content, and cultivate their own autonomous ability to use it, they'll realize they need home broadband and quality mobile options to get their fix.  They'll agitate for it themselves.  But without that education and outreach -- we can build it -- but they won't come.