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Howard Baldwin - Photograph

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

John Horrigan spends a lot of time worrying about the digital divide – the chasm that divides certain demographic sectors when it comes to accessing information, transacting business, and interacting with government.

I wrote about this last year in Broadband: Exploring The Demographic Patterns, but Horrigan has dug a little deeper, both in his former position with Pew Internet Research and his current position as vice-president and director of the Media and Technology Institute at Washington, D.C.’s Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The good news: as has been reported, minorities are more likely to use smartphones, devices that help narrow the digital divide.

The bad news: they tend to use them more for fun than for education, job searches, or government interaction.

Broadband Usage Comparisons

Here’s how the divide widens and narrows, according to Horrigan’s research. In the U.S., 46 percent of whites have smartphones, while 49 percent of Hispanics and African-Americans do. That’s statistically significant, Horrigan says, especially because other research besides his own confirms these numbers.

But if you look at home broadband installations, the percentages flip considerably: 69 percent for Caucasians, and 56 percent for both Hispanics and African-Americans. When you look at the people who only use a smartphone for Internet access, their numbers and the quality of their online activities decline as well.

“Minorities are very engaged with social networking,” says Horrigan, “but they’re less likely to use the Internet for educational purposes or interacting with government.” For instance, the figure for those who participate in social networking is the same: 82 percent whether they have home broadband or just a smartphone.

But when you drill down and look at other activities — research for school or work, researching consumer goods, health and medical queries — the percentages begin to diverge (interestingly, job searches have the same percentage: 65 percent; see graphic).

study-broadband-applications

Improving Access and Supporting User Needs

Horrigan’s take on the situation — the more devices you have connected to the Internet, the better the information you can get. That negatively impacts those minorities who only use smartphones. “Usage patterns are lower because of [smartphones’] smaller screen,” he says. “That means the quality of the access might not be as good. Throw in data caps, and that makes access even harder.”

He believes, further, that some access is better than no access. “I’d like to track over time whether smartphone usage leads to deeper engagement with the Internet, and what happens as technology evolves and mobile devices become more powerful,” he says. Enticed by the power of smartphones, will certain demographics move onto tablets because they want more capabilities? “Generally, that’s the pattern you’d expect going forward. As researchers, we want to watch that.”

But in the meantime, increasing minority access and usage isn’t solely incumbent on the device manufacturers. Horrigan says, “The industry should develop business models and service offerings that help make that migration path as feasible as possible for those kinds of users,” he says. “Both [the private and public sector] want to have as many users as possible on the Internet to carry out transactions, so they should push that migration forward.”

The challenge, then, is multi-faceted: first making information easier to access through smartphones, with easy-to-use apps. This is especially important for government agencies that are more likely to work with minority demographics. Then, as the Internet of things catches on, the industry will need to do better at connecting objects in the house for home health care and education.

Finally, we need to figure out a way to make tablets as accessible as smartphones to improve ease-of-use of applications for everyone — no matter what demographic group they belong to.

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