Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
Mobile Internet is an Equalizer
For a number of years now I have touted in this column the importance of the Internet and the digital tools it provides both Minnesota businesses and residents. These tools not only allow businesses to increase their productivity and market share, but they allow 24/7/365 access to an increasing variety of public services; provides new access points to higher education; telemedicine and greater personal and community connectivity. On a large scale the Internet has allowed businesses and communities to have a global digital visibility; and on a small scale it can provide new tools for a local church to maintain a connection with its congregation all week long and not just on Sundays. It is truly a remarkable technology. However, the reality is that the Internet is only a useful tool to those who connect with it; so it is not surprising that researchers and government agencies have continually monitored Internet adoption and diffusion across the country since the beginning of the 21st century.
Today, according to a variety of reliable sources including the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the PEW Internet and American Life Project, we can say with a degree of confidence that approximately 80 percent of all American adults use the Internet, with the overwhelming percentage connecting through a broadband connection. In fact, according to a recent study by Connect Minnesota, more than 95 percent of Minnesota households have access to a broadband connection and more than 70 percent of Minnesotans purchase a broadband connection.
At the same time studies have consistently found a number of sub-groups lagging substantially behind the Internet adoption curve. These sub-groups include residents who are 65 and older; residents whose annual household income is less than $30,000; adults living with disabilities; and residents of color. However, the Internet landscape has been changing substantially in the past few years and one has to wonder if these changes have been truly reflected in many of these statistics?
For example, today we know that almost 90 percent of the adult population owns a cell phone and that an increasing percentage of those cell phones are Internet-enabled. Yet for years researchers (including myself) conducted surveys with the opening questions being, "Do you have a working computer in your home?" and if so, "Is the computer connected to the Internet?" For up until now the assumption has always been that the primary appliance that people use to connect to the Internet was the computer. However we simply can't make that assumption anymore. In fact since the creation of the iPhone, the popular phrase "There's an app for that" increasingly reflects the adoption of mobile devices worldwide and the change in the way people connect to the Internet. However, for many government agencies this change has yet to fully sink in, as some still do not consider mobile broadband a true broadband connection.
For some the issue is the connection speed, as they see mobile Internet connections as generally slower than most terrestrial-based connections such as Cable and DSL (which is true). But for me the issue is the functionality of the connection; and if I can smoothly stream a Netflix™ video to my phone, how can you tell me that I don't have a broadband connection? Further, as the major mobile carriers (Verizon, AT&T and Sprint) begin to deploy wireless 4G technology with connection speeds of 12Mbps and faster, it will soon become self-evident that mobile broadband simply can't be ignored.
But most important to this discussion is the impact of mobile broadband on some of those sub-groups that have traditionally lagged when measuring broadband adoption. For example, a recent study from the PEW Internet and American Life Project reports that White, Black and Hispanic Americans all go online wirelessly at the same percentage. And when looking specifically at Smartphone ownership, Black and Hispanic Americans actually report slightly higher rates of ownership than White Americans. In fact, very similar results were recently reported by Connect Minnesota where they found no difference in the adoption of mobile Internet among White and Black Minnesotans and that Hispanic Minnesotans substantially surpassed the statewide adoption rate (48% vs. 39%). Similar findings were found among low-income Minnesota families with children.
The point is that the increasing adoption of mobile Internet appears to be an equalizer that needs to be better understood. The recognition that the adoption of mobile Internet devices seem to be more widespread across a broader set of demographic and socio-economic groups than terrestrial-based Internet is a welcome finding as the Internet has the potential to "lift all boats." Accordingly, the sooner we recognize this reality the better.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at email@example.com