10 percent of U.S. adults rely solely on smartphones for broadband Internet, study says

Debate rages over whether or not smartphones with 3G or LTE service are sufficient substitutes for dedicated high-speed home Internet connections, but for a certain segment of the population, that is nonetheless the role that smartphones play.

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, one in 10 Americans lacks high-speed broadband at home but owns a smartphone. Smartphones offer "a potential source of online access to individuals who might otherwise lack the ability to go online at all from within the home, even if that access is somewhat limited in comparison," the research center said.

Pew does not include smartphone owners in its standard definition of a "broadband user." Using that definition, some 70 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 and older have a high-speed broadband connection at home besides dial-up. Adding smartphone owners to Pew's count of home broadband users, the proportion reaches 80 percent.

Pew noted that blacks and Latinos are less likely to have access to home broadband than whites, but factoring in their use of smartphones nearly eliminates that broadband "gap."

In addition, including smartphones in Pew's broadband definition exacerbates differences in broadband adoption rates by age group due to the fact that younger adults are more likely to own smartphones than older adults.

Yet Pew contends it is unclear whether broadband-enabled smartphones qualify as delivering true broadband speeds or whether smartphones can offer the same utility to users as a dedicated high-speed home internet connection.

"Smartphones may offer an additional avenue for Internet access that surpasses the dial-up experience in many ways, but those who rely on them for home Internet use may face limitations that are not shared by those with traditional broadband connections," said Aaron Smith, senior researcher for the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.

Some of those limitations stem from the impact of spectrum availability. Though mobile data services have become the main source of growth for telcos, spectrum constraints mean telcos will increasingly need to rely on offloading traffic to fixed networks, according to the most recent biannual Communications Outlook from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

OECD said wireless broadband overtook the number of fixed broadband subscriptions globally during 2008, but it also noted that the majority of mobile broadband devices remain connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi at home and at work. Most traffic generated by smartphones and tablets "has been linked to the use of Wi-Fi associated networks, rather than cellular networks," said the organization.

Further, OECD observed that fixed networks are increasingly being called upon to provide backhaul for wireless services.  

For more:
- see this Pew release
- see this OECD release and webpage
- see this Broadband Reports article

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