Improving Online Access: On the Importance of the Smartphone

For almost all of us, the “online” experience has shifted. The days of dial-up and even high-speed modems have clearly passed, and now Google has come to our fingertips. Emails and queries are now conducted from trains or buses or sidewalks instead of behind bulky desktops. According to an articled published by Pew Media in April of 2015, 

“Today nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and 19 percent of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them—either because they lack broadband at home or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone.”

So, while mentions of “online” or “browsing” might still evoke images of a person saddled behind a desk punching keys into computer, the reality is much more mobile. 

Smartphone Dependence

While some of us obsess about our smartphone's ability to text, Snapchat or tweet, others rely on their phones for a much more essential function: accessing the internet. For about 7 percent of the U.S. population, smartphones represent the only option for accessing any form of broadband. Without a computer or internet service, these people have become what Pew Media coined “smartphone-dependent.” 

For low-income families, smartphone dependence is almost unavoidable. Internet access can often run $50 per month or more, and this doesn't include the cost of the necessary hardware needed for it to operate (i.e., desktops, laptops, Ethernet cables, modems, etc.). As a result, smartphones quickly become an integral part of daily life.

Forget about simple functions such as texting, calling or tweeting; for these lower-income families, smartphones become a lifeline and a necessity. Rebeccea Ungarino, an investigative journalist, explains in an article for CNBC

“Not all Americans have access to high-speed broadband connections at home, a disparity sometimes referred to as the growing digital divide… [here] smartphones are playing an increasingly outsized role in their lives. Cellphones serve as digital lifelines for everything from health care information to job hunts.”

How widespread is this issue? Here's a snapshot from Pew Media's findings:

  • 10 percent of Americans own a smartphone, yet have no other form of high-speed internet access except their phone’s data plan. 
  • 15 percent of Americans who have a smartphone claim they have “limited access” to online media other than their cell phone.
  • 19 percent of U.S. adults indicate that at least one of the above conditions apply, while 7 percent indicate both apply.
  • 13 percent of Americans who report an income of less than $30,000 per year claim to be smartphone-dependent, compared to just 1 percent from households earning more than $75,000 per year.

Necessary Functions

For low-income families, these phones attempt to solve a variety of issues—from accessing reliable forms or transportation to diagnosing illnesses for themselves and their families. 

Just 10 years ago, limited access to a car or other transportation presented a variety of problems: How do I get to the bank? How do I get to the store? If my child is sick, do I have to go to the doctor? 

These concerns have now been partially alleviated with the invention of smartphones. Mobile banking allows people to process and deposit checks without leaving the house, and online medical sites such as WebMD can assist people in diagnosing the severity of any health issue before making a trip to the doctor.

Just as important, smartphones offer all children – regardless of class – access to countless educational materials from the comfort of their homes. The drive to the library and the need for a computer is gone, and your own personal virtual tutor is waiting at the click of button. Sites like Khan Academy, a world renown online hub of more than 10,000 educational videos, are using smartphones to bridge the educational gap between the wealthy and the poor. In an article for PC Mag, Stepahnie Mlot explains: 

“According to the company, more than 30 percent of sessions are completed on mobile devices, so expansion to [smartphones] just makes sense. 'We believe strongly that unlocking the potential for anyone, anywhere to learn on 2 [billion-plus] smartphones worldwide is just getting started,' Khan Academy claims.” 

During the bus ride home, before dinner or in their room, students across the globe now have handheld access to high-quality tutoring materials. While many may believe smartphones are an unnecessary expense for low-income families, they may actually be one of the most vital tools to breaking the cycle of poverty for these families.

Smartphone Saviors

Smartphones have simplified life for all of us, bringing our entire lives into the palm of our hand. For some, however, the value of smartphones extends far beyond the screen, influencing the future of American families more than any of us really know. Without smartphones, a good percentage of the American population has highly limited access to some of life's most important amenities.

Al Eidson is the owner of Eidson & Partners, a business and marketing strategy consultancy, and a founder of SparkLabKC, an early-stage startup accelerator program in Kansas City. He's an expert in taking products to market and has launched more than 220 new products and ventures through his career. He's also proud of killing off a great many problematic products before they hit the market. His vision involves meaningful and lasting products through innovation. 

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