Home Internet Is Becoming a Luxury for the Wealthy

Poorer Americans are increasingly reliant on smartphones as their primary way to access the internet

Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

There’s a growing divide between the rich and the poor when it comes to how they access the internet.

In the United States, people with higher incomes are maintaining home internet connections — think broadband services for a desktop computer — while those making less than $30,000 a year are increasingly reliant on their smartphones, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

Though the number of people who have high-speed internet in their homes is rising overall, a larger portion of lower-income people are using smartphones as their only way to get online compared to previous years.

This year, 26% of U.S. adults who earn less than $30,000 said they’re “smartphone only” internet users. That’s up from 12% in 2013, 20% in 2015, and 21% in 2016. The number of smartphone-reliant people in the top income bracket of $75,000 sits at 6% — relatively unchanged from 5% in 2013.

Hispanic and black adults in the U.S. also have higher rates of being “smartphone only.” In 2019, 23% of black and 25% of Hispanic adults only had a smartphone and no home broadband.

One interesting wrinkle: The numbers reflecting smartphone dependency are slightly lower this year compared to 2018. Monica Anderson, senior researcher at Pew and author of the 2019 report, says the overall narrative remains the same, however.

“I would say that even though we’ve seen a small dip (down 3 percentage) in smartphone-dependency [overall], that the story around smartphone dependency being more common among lower-income or black and Hispanics, for example, remains the same,” Anderson says.

She also notes that not all changes in sub-groups are statistically significant, as the 2019 data had a smaller sample size than 2018.

Meanwhile, 92% of U.S. adults surveyed in 2019 who make more than $75,000 a year have internet in their homes, while 56% of people who make less than $30,000 a year do.

This divide makes it crucial for certain websites, like government services or job boards, to function properly on mobile browsers. Indeed, U.S. government reports have shown that people are increasingly accessing federal services on smartphones, and in 2018 the U.S. passed the Connected Government Act, requiring federal services to have mobile-friendly websites.

There are other issues for using smartphones as a primary way of connecting to the internet, including data caps and the ability to fill out online forms required for tasks like job applications, according to other Pew research. Smartphones are less than ideal for multitasking or using some proprietary software, including potential educational tools or portals for younger students.

It’s crucial that technology accommodates not only those with access to laptops and desktops. If it doesn’t, those with lower incomes will pay the price.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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