Ask someone who the biggest users of data services are on mobile phones, and you'll get predictable answers including Gen X, Gen Y, and businesspeople. All true, but there's a far more interesting - and overlooked - group to add: Hispanic Americans. That raises a key issue for upcoming Congressional debates over health care and the economy.
This week, The Hispanic Institute and Mobile Future published a remarkable study of Hispanic Americans' adoption of mobile technology. The facts are truly compelling. More than half of America's Hispanic population uses the mobile Internet, compared to about a third of whites.
Hispanics also account for more minutes used and for a higher percentage of cell-phone ownership than other ethnic groups, despite their comparatively lower incomes.
There are likely multiple reasons for this but two seem especially persuasive. First, Hispanic Americans tend to move more often than the U.S. average, and the ability to keep a single phone number through multiple moves is appealing. Second, roughly 40% of Hispanic Americans were born in other countries, where wireless service can be more common than landlines.
But beyond the usage figures, the big issue for policymakers at all levels is: How can we leverage this? That's where this new study shines. The report suggests ways to improve access to health care, education and economic opportunity, all through encouraging wireless innovation.
Take health care. Hispanics are more likely than some other groups to suffer from diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Text messaging is an obvious and inexpensive way to expand preventive care by reminding people to check their blood sugar levels, check their blood pressure or take their medications. Wireless monitoring of a heart condition is already a reality.
Moreover, wireless technology is being used increasingly by health care providers to streamline and improve care.
This report analyzes the broader implications of increased mobile usage in the Hispanic community and builds on a Pew survey released earlier this summer on usage habits of Hispanics and African-Americans.
But with wireless' potential to help the neediest Americans, and lift diverse American communities, this is an important issue for lawmakers and regulators. Much of the health care debate, for example, centers on how to control costs while expanding access, monitoring and information. Hispanic Americans seem ready and willing to leverage their wireless devices to do all three. The way they have embraced wireless broadband - services and devices - has also armed Hispanic Americans with one of the most affordable tools to improve educational opportunities for their children.
As the old Hispanic proverb goes, when fortune knocks upon the door, open it widely. The growing mobile usage rate among Hispanic Americans creates an empowering option to improve their access to vital government, education and health care services. This is one door that public officials should open very wide indeed.
Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration. www.mobilefuture.org