Friday New Tools Feature: Mobile Internet Narrows the Digital Divide Domestically

My colleague Sam duPont has been doing excellent work writing about how mobile technology is helping to provide information services and access in deveoping countries. As a recent Pew Internet and American Life survey helps to illustrate, the same is true within our own country, where socio-economic conditions have traditionally prevented many from accessing the internet, and thus put the less fortunate at an even more profound disadvantage in today's data-centric world.

Here are some of the most important findings of the study:

  • 48% of Africans Americans have at one time used their mobile device to access the internet for information, emailing, or instant-messaging, half again the national average of 32%.
  • 29% of African Americans use the internet on their handheld on an average day, also about half again the national average of 19%.
  • Compared with 2007, when 12% of African Americans used the internet on their mobile on the average day, use of the mobile internet is up by 141%.

The high level of activity among African Americans on mobile devices helps offset lower levels of access tools that have been traditional onramps to the internet, namely desktop computers, laptops, and home broadband connections.

The study found that, "by a 59% to 45% margin, white Americans are more likely to go online using a computer on a typical day than African Americans." However, "when mobile devices are included in the mix, the gap is cut in half; 61% of whites go online on the average day when mobile access is included while 54% of African Americans do."

Of course, even with high-end mobile devices like the iPhone, there are still very significant differences in functionality between your typical internet-enabled mobile device and a notebook or desktop. And, especially if data is being accessed over carrier networks instead of WiFi, there is a pretty big difference speed. There were several columns this week, including two in the New York Times (1 | 2), about how iPhone users (particularly those in dense cities, where bandwidth issues are the most glaring) are angry about how slow their download speeds are. Indeed, in explaining why they're so far behind schedule in allowing iPhone users to use MMS, AT&T admitted that their network was struggling to keep up with the demand for data:

We're riding the leading edge of smartphone growth that's resulted in an explosion of traffic over the AT&T network. Wireless use on our network has grown an average of 350 percent year-over-year for the past two years, and is projected to continue at a rapid pace in 2009 and beyond. The volume of smartphone data traffic the AT&T network is handling is unmatched in the wireless industry.

It is true that at this point mobile internet alone cannot totally bridge the digital divide (it's still pretty hard to apply for many jobs, or do word processing or website work, without a real computer). However, with the implementation of 4G networks over the next few years, and the exponential increase in smartphone sophistication we're likely to see - in particular, the app ecosystem is still in its infancy, and is likely to explode in utility much as the internet did - this report should still be read as an essentially positive sign.