Mobile Phones Are Not The Key to Bridging the Digital Divide

Something new to consider as we consider broadband access as a universal right – mobile phones. NPR looks at a recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project on Mobile Access.  Does 3G (and soon to be 4G) speed qualify as broadband access? NPR quotes these stats from Pew

African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web. Cell phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos than among whites (87% vs. 80%) and minority cell phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users. In total, 64% of African-Americans access the internet from a laptop or mobile phone, a seven-point increase from the 57% who did so at a similar point in 2009.

Before stating:

Could mobile use be a gateway for people of color to harness more of the  broader digital world?  Both activists and advertisers believe so.

Are we really going to say a mobile phone equals broadband access? I sure hope not.  So many sites still don’t work well on mobile phones, including important ones from the government. I firmly believe that this will result in the sort of second class citizens that the Knight Commission warns us about. Please don’t make me point out the problem of accepting a sub-standard option for minorities.

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16 thoughts on “Mobile Phones Are Not The Key to Bridging the Digital Divide

  1. I would also comment that many of the minorities I see accessing the Internet on mobile phones are using older, even outdated, cell phones that do not compare with the smart phones that are currently on the market.

    This holds true for laptops as well. To maintain an acceptable pace in the race of the digital divide a person needs to have a laptop that is current with features and accessibility. There have been several individuals that have come into the library with six year old laptops which can barley run let alone access digital information.

    I feel outdated technologies, while they may help, do not count as ways to bridge the digital divide.

    These opinions, of course, are exactly that, opinions. I cannot speak for all instances of older technology only the incidents I have seen.


  2. The worst damage to mobile browsing is done by the phone manufacturers themselves. Opera Mini and Mobile Safari are two browsers that are easily accessible to non-specialist sitebuilders (i.e., most professionals and practically all amateurs), and thankfully they’re available across a big chunk of the smartphone userbase. From there the baseline user experience gets harder and harder to predict.

    If other device manufacturers make the move to Retina-grade resolutions after Apple, that presents another challenge: defining presentation for two resolutions simultaneously. As challenges go it’s easy to excel, but it’s yet another PITA.

    Thus the development effort goes to the desktop, which still offers the greatest return on investment. After that follow the smartphones with popular or accurately emulated browsing platforms, and after that… it’s up to the publisher how much money they want to throw at the network providers JUST for the privilege of testing their product before it goes into production. I’m an O’Reilly Media author, and my book avoids mobile platforms entirely for this reason.

    Since most project sponsors bristle at the cost of desktop development, much less mobile development, I see a tough user experience for a while yet. This is compounded by the fact that network providers didn’t even begin to appreciate smartphone users’ demand for data, and one of the better known pubs (Wired? Fast Company? WSJ? …can’t remember which) made a point recently of discussing AT&T’s scramble to upgrade the data capacity of their network.

    Verdict: it sucks to depend on mobile Web access, even if you have the latest and the greatest.


  3. Your point is that this is not an optimum answer, I think. However, in our case (National Network of Libraries of Medicine; we just wrote a 5-year contract with the feds that draws strongly from this Pew report) we are encouraging information providers to write FOR these limited modes of access. It’s not ideal, but (and I hate this when others say it to me, so feel free to hate it and me) it’s better than nothing and is, actually, a good conduit for things like consumer health information.


  4. I believe that 3G and 4G constitutes broadband if you use FCC’s definition of broadband ( which is around 4 Mbps currently. Many Mobile providers, in particular T-mobile HSPA+ and Sprints 4G network, fit this criteria. However, barriers to full use of these networks, including limits in the ability to tether mobile internet access to other devices and data capping (For example, T-mobile has a 10 gig usage cap). Unless these limits are addressed, we can not complete say that Mobile networks give users as complete an access experience as non-mobile networks.


    1. Which brings me to my other problem with the push for broadband access. Have access to high-speed internet is only the first step. It needs to be followed with the proper hardware (not a mobile phone) and the skills to use the hardware and navigate the Internet.


      1. Thought-provoking post, Bobbi. I join you in feeling unease by the idea of a mobile panacea.

        Your comment is spot-on: the divide is not caused by lack of access exclusively. Possessing the skills to access information, complete tasks, and achieve goals is paramount (and libraries are key access points for learning this information–but you knew that). 🙂


  5. I personally think that technology has also progressed in the wrong direction – bigger, more complex, end-user systems isn’t the answer. In fact, it’s an inhibitor to quicker and more navigable information. Plugins are bulky and will hopefully find obsolescence, and, if you look at the international landscape, mobile phones are actually the most used tools for communication and information. There are obviously many factors to consider, but perhaps web developers need to fully embrace mobile web standards (and smaller computer screens) just as sound engineers have had to record music to the favor of mp3 compression.


    1. I agree. I believe that in order to completely seal the so-called “Digital Divide”, you would need two things: Extremely cheap terminal hardware and ubiquitous, cheap-if-not-free internet access. When think of terminal hardware, I think more like the initiative that the Indian Government is pursuing with thier $35 tablet. ( I know that the FCC, Whitehouse, and certain private and non-profit interests as looking into creating a “public access wireless internet” using spectrum freed up by the recent digital broadcast conversion.


  6. Bobbi, I really like this post. Right now the only thing that will bridge the digital divide is the library.


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