Industry Voices — Entner: Mobile is colorblind

We need to make the ownership of computers and tablets as color blind as the ownership of smartphones. (Getty Images)
Roger Entner

Stay-at-home orders, school closings, and social distancing have raised the issue of the digital divide in the United States. While the availability and affordability of connectivity is important, owning a device to access the internet is equally important. Broadband without a device is even less useful than a device without a network. A government program that tries to close the digital divide needs to pay attention to where a digital device gap does and does not exist. 

Nielsen just published its Total Audience Report 2020, which also provides insights on device ownership by race. This allows us to glean important insights from the data and how it should inform policy makers, as there are similarities and significant differences when it comes to device ownership. 

The most owned device in the United States is the smartphone. Ninety-three percent of all Americans own one. Contrary to common stereotypes, there is no significant difference when it comes to smartphone ownership – mobile is colorblind. White Americans are actually the laggards with 93% ownership when it comes to smartphone ownership as Blacks (95%), Hispanics (97%) and Asians (97%) are all reporting higher smartphone ownership. The high ownership is driven by the significant utility of smartphones – the Swiss Army Knives of the connected world. It fits in your pocket, allows people to talk, text and use the internet, and is readily financed through mobile operators or device manufacturers, bringing down the cost of the device to a manageable monthly installment.

Where we are seeing substantial differences is in computer and tablet ownership. As of March 2020, an average of 78% of Americans owned a computer. Eighty-nine percent of Asian Americans own a computer, followed by 80% of whites, but only 68% of Blacks. Similarly, 63% of Americans own a tablet. Again, Asian Americans have the highest device ownership with 72%, followed by white Americans with 64%, but only 55% of Black Americans own a tablet.

Tablets and computers are essential to closing the homework gap and, even more importantly, the testing gap. Unless every child and student has access and is able to participate in online learning and testing, the progress and grades for every child in the class cannot be counted in their official school record. This makes universal access critical for all, regardless of income and access. We need to make the ownership of computers and tablets as color blind as the ownership of smartphones.  

While smartphone ownership has increased from March 2019 to March 2020, computer and tablet ownership has declined, together with ownership of other, increasingly obsolete technology hardware like Blue-Ray DVD Players, DVRs, and game consoles.  

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Blue-Ray DVD players and VCRs have been supplanted by video-on-demand services, which have seen a significant increase in adoption. Game consoles have also suffered from the shift to mobile gaming on smartphones and the lack of the introduction of new consoles. Both the Microsoft Xbox and the Sony Playstation 4 are seven years old and technologically obsolete, with both devices receiving a next-generation model at the end of 2020. Computers, including laptops, as well as tablets have also been struggling as they have been lacking the sorts of new features that have consumers chomping at their bits to buy a new one. 

Any stimulus plan that is genuinely interested in closing the digital divide and the resulting homework and testing gaps needs to address the device gap as well. Broadband networks without the right devices are like one-handed clapping. To improve learning and to raise and broaden the standard of digital economy skills, every student should have a device that can access broadband networks. If a student’s family cannot afford such a device, the government should provide aid to acquire one. If the government is serious in bringing the high-tech device supply chain back to the United States, it can require that the devices are being manufactured in the United States and have a proportion of the component come from the United States as well so that the stimulus money actually stimulates the US economy. 

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The proliferation of 5G launches offers a significant opportunity for the government to stimulate innovation akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Arsenal of Freedom initiative or the space program’s myriad of spin-off innovations that have made our lives better.  

5G-capable devices should be at the core of such a program with both x86 and ARM processors. American companies like Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm would provide the technology that is at the heart of these devices - the processor - and sell them to any device manufacturer. Apple would build ARM processors for its own devices. Such a device stimulus plan could be the important accelerant for ARM processors in computers and laptops. ARM processors are at the heart of smartphones and tablets, as ARM processors are very energy and heat efficient, but they only slowly make an entry into the computer world as their compute power is approaching and in some cases overtaking x86 processors.

Qualcomm together with Microsoft has launched an ARM laptop, and Apple is rumored to use its A-series processors in upcoming MacBooks. China’s Huawei has designed its entire AI, called Ascend, and a general computer program called Kunpeng on ARM technology and plans to build an entire ecosphere around it with a $1.5 billion investment over the next five years. The United States should at least be able to match a similar kind of investment to make sure it does not fall behind if there is a significant shift to ARM computing. 

With the country on the brink of a slow and painful recovery from the pandemic, the time is now for Congress to direct money where it will have the biggest economic and societal impact.  Right now, closing the digital divide and the homework gaps is precisely such an opportunity. Enabling more Americans to afford an internet-capable device is critical to the country’s recovery, and one of the fastest ways to give a voice to more black and brown Americans who are otherwise being left out of the country’s economic and other successes.

Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.