Universal broadband adoption and meaningful digital literacy remain among the equity issues of our time, standing alongside our goals for education, and healthcare. But quickly evolving technology, and our own patterns of use are changing the very way we think about access to broadband.
Recent PEW data highlight this. Fully 86% of Latinos now say they own a cellphone, a share similar to that of whites (84%) and blacks (90%). And 49% of those are smartphones - a number ahead of whites at 46% and on par with blacks at 50%. These patterns are important to the discussion about Internet access and adoption. They remind us that, in the conversation about broadband adoption, the best Internet access point for me may not be best for you. How one chooses to access the Internet will always be influenced by what qualities are valued most - speed, reliability, and mobility to name a few. But, whether for video or e-mail; whether for connectivity while on the go, or for at home in front of a laptop; whether it's for work or for play, today's consumers generally have multiple options to choose from.
This wasn't always so. At one time, broadband meant a wired connection at your desk. When considering whether America was meeting its broadband goals or was stuck in a permanent digital divide, what mattered was "broadband at home," hardwired to your computer. For those still least likely to participate in the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by broadband, the home divide - still more than a 10 percentage point gap for Latinos -- is a key indicator. But wireless technology is a significant, and growing opportunity to help bridge that gap.
Thanks to technological advances, wireless technology presents an important option for our broadband. Want a high-definition video, an online game, the latest app, a connection to Google search or Bing, or driving directions -- we do it via wireless. Just about any Internet-based activity that can be done on the desktop can also be accomplished on my tablet. When March Madness gets underway, millions will thank that smartphone in their pocket for letting them watch basketball no matter where they happen to be.
The newest generation of wireless, LTE, is delivering speeds rivaling some wired connections. Because of its enhanced reliability, LTE is also speeding connections to innovative health care options as well as advanced school courses and online degrees. General Motors says that beginning this fall all of its new cars will be built with wireless broadband inside.
This is not to say that wireless is better, or that we should encourage communities to get rid of their wired Internet connection. Wired, home Internet, and computer ownership will continue to be one measure of digital participation, especially for those already behind the curve. But we must acknowledge that we now have genuine choices - from multiple providers, including rapidly improving wireless LTE, and satellite broadband offerings that deliver more for the money than ever before.
For a growing number of consumers, especially younger Americans and minorities, mobile broadband is their first choice. Pew also reports that more than one-third of minorities use their smartphone as their favorite route to the Internet. All told, Pew says that two thirds of Hispanic -Americans and six of ten black Americans, and more than three quarters of Americans under the age of 30 use a mobile device to reach the Internet. Last year, Americans connected 51 million new devices to wireless networks and Cisco estimates that by the end of this year, the number of mobile devices will exceed the number of people on earth.
When it comes to connectivity, wireless broadband is a powerful option that's often the number one choice for reasons of convenience and economics. More powerful networks that support evolving devices -- like tablets and netbooks that can be connected to larger screens and real keyboards -- also mean that some higher-level functions like coding and resume building will also be accomplished via mobile. Many of the most interesting education technology experiments leverage mobile technology as a central strategy.
In rethinking broadband, we know that home access, and computer ownership will be an important indicator of success. But, with existing technology advances and those ahead, neither wireless broadband nor any competing technology will be the clear "right" choice for everyone. Policy decisions should reflect that reality as we look to achieve America's broadband goals. We can neither afford to think of wireless as second best, nor a wired connection as the only broadband option -- innovation, and our own choices mean it's time to think again.
Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. Is Senior Fellow, LIN@R at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information Studies. Follow him on Twitter @llorenzesq and follow LIN@R technology tweets @LINAR_technolog.