A new report from bipartisan CEO network TechNet says stagnated home broadband adoption is leading to digital exclusion for a large portion of the population even as smartphone adoption skyrockets.
"Two trends are in tension today: tepid home broadband adoption and rapid smartphone adoption (predominantly among existing broadband users)," said the group's report, released to mark the two-year anniversary of the delivery of the Obama administration's National Broadband Plan.
The group contends that growing adoption of smartphones and mobile apps is doing nothing to alleviate "the cost of digital exclusion, i.e., shrinking offline alternatives for things such as job applications makes lack of access costly and unfair to non-adopters."
TechNet's report states that broadband access has barely budged over the past three years. It notes that an FCC survey said 65 percent of Americans had broadband at home in 2009, and that adoption rate was still sitting at 65 percent in February 2012 based on survey results from Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Yet while the National Broadband Plan that was released two years ago appears to be struggling with its mission to get more Americans using broadband at home, smartphone usage has been skyrocketing, a trend TechNet finds troubling.
TechNet noted that Pew Research discovered that nearly half of adult Americans by February 2012 had smartphones, up from just 17 percent in late 2009. "This adoption rate is stunning," said TechNet, noting that it took roughly nine years for 50 percent of Americans to subscribe to broadband at home. "If we date the beginning of the smartphone era to the release of the iPhone in mid-2007, smartphones will hit the halfway mark in only five years. To take another point of comparison, home broadband adoption grew from 37 percent to 47 percent in two years' time (2005 to 2007), while smartphones have traveled that path in just 10 months," said TechNet.
The group noted that apps usage has also taken off, with smartphone users more than doubling the time they spent using apps--from 43 minutes to 94 minutes per day--during the period from mid 2010 to year-end2011. "More than 100 million Americans routinely email, tweet, text, and much more--all on the go," said TechNet, which noted that its own research shows that United States was home to some 466,000 app developer jobs at the end of 2011.
But TechNet contends that these are worrisome, rather than positive, trends, because people without a home broadband connection are not simply choosing smartphone Internet access instead. Pew's February 2012 survey showed that 83 percent of respondents with smartphones also have broadband at home. It also showed that just 23 percent of non-broadband users had a smartphone. "To be sure, if one were to add ‘smartphone only' users to broadband users, the overall figure from broadband adoption would rise from 65 percent to 73 percent, using Pew's February 2012 numbers," said TechNet's report.
But TechNet argues that smartphone data services are not equivalent to home broadband because mobile operators are capping the data customers may consume on a monthly basis, meaning "the smartphone has limited utility as a means of sole online access." Further, TechNet notes that the vast majority of smartphones "run on 3G networks, where speeds are a fraction of those available over wireline networks and highly variable depending on location and network congestion."
The group made several suggestions for expanding home broadband access, including implementing a broadband clearinghouse for best practices as recommended in the National Broadband Plan. It also called for enhanced policy coordination at the federal level, particularly regarding the Lifeline/Link-up program--the $1.2 billion program that subsidizes telephone access, including mobile phone service, for qualified low-income people-in order to enable its use for delivering broadband to consumers.
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