How does the ongoing mobile revolution intersect with the persistent digital divide?
A new Pew study* updates us on how Americans are using mobile devices in 2018, and it tells us a great deal.
Here’s one key finding. 20% of Americans are smartphone-only at home. That means they don’t have broadband access through DSL, fiber, WiFi, satellite, etc. At home they get online solely through mobile phones.
Who are these people, these advanced cord-cutters? The report explains that they
are disproportionately less likely to have attended college compared with those with traditional broadband service. They also report living in lower-income households… This phenomenon is also notably more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics than among whites.
So: poorer people, less well educated folks, and racial minorities. Being smartphone-only at home seems to be a reliable indicator of coming from the wrong side of America’s tracks.
Now this is where the digital divide appears. The population that’s smartphone-only (setting aside access via work, school, community centers, businesses) fits most (but not all; keep reading) of the digital divide’s low side, as I and others have explained. Consider the smartphone-only experience, with bandwidth caps and often lower speeds.
In contrast, we can complete the picture with the divide’s upside:
[R]elatively well-educated and financially well-off Americans are substantially more likely to say they do have a traditional broadband connection at home. Nearly nine-in-ten Americans in households earning $75,000 or more per year say they subscribe to home broadband service, nearly double the rate among those earning less than $30,000 per year (45% of whom have broadband service at home).
Having home broadband based in something other than 4G networks is now a sign of coming from the right side of the tracks.
The Pew report offers a second finding, reminding us of a persistent and invisible population: those with neither smartphone nor home broadband. They remain basically offline: “it is also notable that 15% of Americans indicate that they have neither broadband service at home nor a smartphone. A large share of this group is not online at all: 11% of Americans indicate that they do not use the internet or email from any location.” From any location.
We could rephrase this as “11% of us aren’t in the 21st century.” Or more directly say that one ninth of America isn’t using the internet in 2018. And who are these people?
those who lack both broadband service and a smartphone are disproportionately likely to be from certain segments of the population. Most notably, 40% of Americans ages 65 and older fall into this category. But this is also true for substantial minorities of rural residents (25%), those who have not attended college (25%) and those from households earning less than $30,000 per year (23%).
That’s nearly one half of American seniors. Think about that. (Need I remind you that the majority of senior voters voted for Trump?)
That’s one quarter of the rural population. One quarter of those without any post-secondary experience. Almost one quarter of those in poverty. This is the digital divide’s deep end, the extreme of the low side.
What do these findings tell us about the future? I’d hazard a guess that both patterns (smartphone-only, nothing-only) will persist for a while, given supporting forces. Income inequality is deepening. Racism against blacks and hispanics isn’t exactly going away. Moreover, these patterns might be self-sustaining. People who live offline in 2018 might feel that they’re doing fine without Snapchat, and are confident in remaining so. Or they might be so embarrassed that making the jump looks increasingly terrifying.
Now, the rural and senior dimensions are gradually changing. America, like most of the world, is shuffling its population from the countryside and into cities and suburbs, so the rural population is dwindling. Some seniors are still learning to get online, and middle aged people are aging into being seniors. Possibly those drivers will dwindle in strength, and a larger proportion of people get online.
These changes are gradual, steady but slow. Let’s say we have a decade of this to run, maybe more. In the meantime, we’ll see a segment of America remaining offline, separated out from the world of cat videos and Cambridge Analytica. That’s a deep and thorough divide, which we’ll need to understand and attend to. We’ll see another segment primarily online through their phones, inhabiting a world of apps rather than desktops. That’s another divide we should track and respond to.
For educators, the implications are obvious, and have been so for a long while. If we’re serious about supporting black, poor, and/or hispanic students, we need to do a better job of making academia accessible through mobile devices. We need to keep supporting other digital access sites, from labs to laptops available from vending machines, to both academic and public libraries (and remember that public libraries are epic, unsung heroes in supporting public access to the digital world). We have to think about how we support – or how we just reach – that 11+% who aren’t online at all.
There is an opportunity here for the United States to mitigate these divides. As a nation we could take steps to expand internet access. As educators we can both change what we do in our institutions and also exert ourselves as citizens. Unfortunately I don’t see great odds for the former.
As for the latter, American education is very centralized and our schools not very good at collective action. It can be a simple matter to decide that your campus is doing what it can, and to expect everyone else to do their share. And some institutions are doing a great job, ranging from supporting extensive infrastructure (one reason for “administrative bloat,” by the way) to nudging more content and services into mobile-friendly forms.
In the meantime, perhaps academics should ask again our old questions: whom do we serve, and how?
(Do read the other half of that report, about shifting attitudes. Different topic, really.)
*When a new Pew study appears I’m amazed the blogosphere doesn’t fire up and Twitter doesn’t melt down. Pew has done such important work for years on how people use technology. It’s useful, essential stuff. Call me a fan if you like, but I’ve long relied on Pew research.