Archive for 1 December 2009

Whither the Digital Divide?

1 December 2009

Digital Divide?We can’t say that the digital divide is gone, but it certainly is changing its shape, thanks to trends in mobile broadband adoption. NPR ran a story on Morning Edition today that reported on a Pew Hispanic Center study on the intersection of race and mobile use. I’ve written about this stuff before, and Simon covers it in his Dawn of a New Politics presentation– really interesting.

The data show, as you can see in the chart at left, that blacks and Hispanics use broadband and other features on their mobile phones at consistently higher rates than whites. The report offers four explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. Cost. In our networked world, everyone who can have broadband access wants it.  Mobile broadband is cheaper than in-home broadband.  Blacks and Hispanics tend to be lower-income, and so gravitate toward mobile.
  2. Youth. Young people tend to be early adopters. Black and Hispanic populations skew young.  ‘Nuff said.
  3. Network Effects: As more people in these communities adopt the technology, the effects are compounded as they pull in their families and other social networks.
  4. Convenience: Particularly for Hispanics, who tend to be more itinerant  and more in touch with family and friends abroad, connecting to the network via mobile makes a lot more sense than in-home broadband.

Is this a good thing? Surely.  In-home broadband connections are prohibitively expensive for many Americans, and in a world where it’s increasingly a necessity to be connected, it’s hugely important that there is a lower-cost option for lower-income people. 

But is this the end of the digital divide? Surely not. Blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income Americans do still lag in computer use and in-home, fiber broadband connections.  While mobile broadband is helping to level the playing field, there is a degree of functionality that is lost on a cell phone.

No more than about 40% of black and Hispanic users access the internet on their phones– reflective in part, no doubt, of the lower usability of mobile web– and that remains a critical indicator.  Until every parent can view their child’s grades online, and every student can learn to use the web for research, and every car buyer can search the internet for the best loan rates– until then, the digital divide will remain a reality we need to challenge. We should be encouraged by this report, but not complacent.

(h/t JS)