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Pew: 'Smartphone-Dependents' Often Have No Backup Plan For Web Access

Looking back on the clunky desktops of home offices, smartphones have expanded the definition of what it means to "go online." With all of the apps and mobile capabilities available to us now, it's no surprise that smartphone ownership has grown.

Almost two-thirds of Americans now own a smartphone, a new report from the Pew Research Center shows. But the demographic that relies most on smartphones for Internet access is also the same group that encounters the most intermittent connections due to both the cost of phone plans and data consumption limitations.

According to the study, nearly 1 in 5 Americans relies on a smartphone for accessing the Internet either because there isn't "any other form of high-speed Internet access at home" or because of a "limited number of ways to get online other than their cell phone." And 7 percent have neither broadband service nor other alternatives for going online other than their smartphone, a group Pew refers to as the "smartphone-dependent" users.

The smartphone-dependents are younger, have lower incomes and are less educated. And Latinos and African-Americans make up more of the smartphone-dependent population than whites.

Pew says:

  • Younger adults: Fifteen percent of Americans ages 18-29 are heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access.
  • Those with low household incomes and levels of educational attainment: Some 13 percent of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year are smartphone-dependent. Just 1 percent of Americans from households earning more than $75,000 per year rely on their smartphones to a similar degree for online access.
  • Nonwhites: Twelve percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Latinos are smartphone-dependent, compared with 4 percent of whites.

For this substantial minority, though, the online access that cellphones deliver is often inconsistent, the study reveals. Nearly half (48 percent) of smartphone-dependents have had to cancel or suspend their cellphone service due to the financial constraints caused by maintaining that service, while 51 percent occasionally maxed out their phone plan's data limit.

Smartphone-Dependent Online Behaviors

While we've reported on the ills of smartphone dependency, being smartphone-dependent — in which users lack other online devices — means the cellphone serves as somewhat of a lifeline. More people are using their phone for things they previously used a desktop for. Mobile devices now help Americans navigate a wide array of life events, such as looking up a health condition, online banking, navigation and as a tool for job search.

But with data limitations hanging over heads, people who tend to rely more heavily on smartphones for accessing the Internet appear to use — or perhaps are resorting to — smartphones for more essential purposes. The smartphone-dependent group is more likely to use their smartphones to access job opportunities, with lower-income users especially more likely to actually submit a job application, Pew finds. African-Americans (37 percent) and Latinos (30 percent) use their smartphone to look up public transit information more often than whites (21 percent.)

The Costs Of Data Drain

If these numbers point mainly to the problem of keeping up with monthly phone costs, city-wide initiatives to offer free public Wi-Fi could alleviate data consumption charges for smartphone-dependents. These "smart cities" experiments have taken off in global municipalities including Hong Kong, New York City, Porto, Portugal, and — soon — New Delhi, India.

Given that nonwhites and lower-income users are more dependent on smartphones, they may be less likely to take advantage of some of the "luxury" apps that can gobble up data. A spike in number of data consumption-heavy resources, like the new live-streaming apps, Meerkat and Periscope, could be another potential factor to hurt smartphone-dependents. Meerkat co-founder Ryan Cooley says that 40 percent of all the streams on the service are broadcast over carrier networks. Similarly, The Next Web reporter Owen Williams tweeted Saturday, "Periscope made me blow my [New Zealand] data cap in two days."

And while smartphone-dependents also tend to expend a big chunk of their data plan on navigation, the location feature on most phones that comes automatically switched on in certain apps, can unnecessarily drain data. These days, smartphones themselves aren't cheap either.

Still, the smartphone seems to be the most cost-effective device choice for delivering a wide-range of online resources. The mobility is logical, since these users are also less likely to have a bank account, health insurance or own their own home, compared to users less reliant on smartphones.

If smartphones can offer us a wealth of information at our fingertips, is it fair that only some can afford it? The Internet connection inequality revisits the question of whether universal Internet access should be free if high data expenses lead to unequal access of services. The U.N. declared Internet access a human right, after all.

Both Google and Facebook want to expand the Internet globally, but as part of the bigger picture to grow profit for their businesses — with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hoping to hook more regions on the digital life before tacking on data fees.

There's more in the full report that covers insights into how Americans view and use their smartphones.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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