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The Digital Divide: Is Mobile Technology Closing the Gap?

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Anyone concerned about bridging the digital divide should be as fascinated with this week's Pew Internet report as Charles Darwin was with the Galapagos.

The report, based on an April survey of almost 2,300 adults, looks at the growing popularity of the mobile Internet. Its overall conclusion: Mobile Internet usage is surging, with 19 percent of adults reporting that they used the mobile web on the day prior to answering the survey.

Given that smartphones have accounted for 20 percent or more of U.S. mobile phone sales since the final quarter of 2008, this result is not particularly surprising. But look closer and some truly interesting demographic data emerges:

African Americans are the most active users of the mobile Internet -- and their use of it is also growing the fastest...

  • 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%.

As the report's author John Horrigan told the New York Times, "The typical early adopter of a dozen years ago was a white guy in his mid- to late thirties. Now you see the cutting edge in mobile Internet being populated by younger people of color."

Two implications of Pew's findings are especially significant. First, these results are the most clear-cut indication to date that the most viable way to expand affordable access comes through wireless technologies, not through a wire. As the report states, "To an extent notably greater than that for whites, wireless access for African Americans serves as a substitute for a missing onramp to the Internet -- the home broadband connection."

Second, from a technological point of view, Pew's findings show the enormous social benefits from the impending roll-out of wireless broadband, including 4G and BRS networks. With their higher speed and greater ability to pierce walls, these systems could make wireless broadband even more accessible, thereby permanently closing the digital divide.

President Obama's campaign understood the value of wireless communication better than any other campaign or grassroots movement over the past decade. This Pew report shows why his administration should continue to encourage more investment in and deployment of high-speed wireless networks.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, served as chief information officer at the United States Information Agency and as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration. www.mobilefuture.org