We all know that Internet access is a necessity for modern life, but just two decades ago, many Americans viewed this essential resource as nothing more than a means of sharing cat pictures with grammatically-incorrect captions. Of course, these sentiments originated in the days of dial-up, when access was unreliable, sparsely designed sites took several seconds to load and streaming video was just a dream.
But technologies evolved, networks improved, and more people bought computers. Availability of faster speeds and broadband service options helped present exciting new possibilities and opportunities. We now live in a world where students attend classes online, entire businesses are run from one-bedroom apartments, government leaders are ousted by Twitter outrage and medical diagnoses can be completed via teleconference. And now that we can carry the Internet in our pocket wherever we go, the only thing holding us back is availability.
Along the way, it became apparent that for many individuals and communities, access to broadband—and all of the benefits it can deliver—remained out of reach. Despite the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the Internet, there were certain populations, geographic areas and socioeconomic groups where people couldn’t get or didn’t want broadband connections. Meanwhile, advancements in tech continued to deliver innovations capable of enhancing lives and bringing new opportunities to consumers.
The most notable of these innovations is the mobile industry. Advancements in mobile technologies brought us modern devices that have been nothing short of game-changing—not only for what we can do with them, but for what mobile access has done for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Or, I should say, for those who used to be on the wrong side.
In the past, difficulties accessing broadband kept many African Americans and Latinos offline; but now, these same communities are dominating mobile connectivity thanks to smartphone ownership. Reports from the Pew Research Center (2013) state that 86% of Latinos own a cellphone, a share similar to that of caucasians (84%) and African Americans (90%). Ethnic minority Internet users are also more likely to access the Web with a mobile device (Latinos 76%, African Americans 73%, Caucasians 60%).
Minorities also make up a large portion of social media users and consumers. According to the study, 29% of African Americans tweet, compared to 16% of Caucasians and Latinos. African Americans also lead LinkedIn with 30% of the community utilizing the site for their job-searching needs, compared to the 22% of the Caucasians and 13% of Latinos.
Today, Americans from all walks of life get online in ways that are as diverse as the population. Consumers aren’t changing their habits to meet some subjective and traditional definition of what “being connected” means. Instead, they’re choosing from a wide range of advanced devices and services, designed to meet a variety of needs.
Recent research shows that smartphones are helping to bridge the digital divide, especially among younger demographics. For many, these advanced personal computing devices are capable of delivering beneficial technologies and high-speed Internet access even if more traditional means of getting online remain out of reach. Wireless users are now the fastest-growing segment of Internet users. More than half of Americans now own smartphones, about a third of American adults own a tablet, and wearable technologies are poised and ready to go in the “next big thing” category. And accordingly, mobile traffic grew to 1.5 exabytes per month in 2013, up 81% from 2012. Mobile video traffic accounted for 53% of that total.
Once online, these enthusiastic users of the mobile Web tend to utilize their devices for a wider range of tasks and purposes than ever before. Mobile connectivity is transforming the ways in which we shop, learn, work, and bank. Wireless broadband and devices can even help students learn by offering fun, individualized lessons designed to ignite scholastic curiosity. It helps people connect to other people and to possibilities with a more convenient, handheld device, and those devices make connecting to the Internet easier than ever, particularly for those who have struggled with access previously.
Broadband connectivity—whether wired or wireless—matters to people and communities, and it is an essential resource for our schools, healthcare institutions, and businesses. Broadband connectivity is also a driving force in our economy. Private investment by U.S. telecom companies has been a shining star in our economy, even during the recession. In recent years, the U.S. telecommunications industry has contributed more to our economy than the top five energy companies and four times more than the Big Three auto companies combined. Over the next five years, the wireless industry will generate more than a trillion dollars in economic growth, leading to a million new jobs. The robust mobile app industry, which didn’t exist before 2007, is expected to generate $46 billion in revenues by 2016.
All of this investment and innovation is poised to deliver exciting new benefits and functionalities, capable of transforming our world yet again by bringing new abilities, opportunities, and resources to us at lightning speeds. But for us to realize the full benefits of this innovation, we need high-speed, high-capacity networks and next-generation infrastructure, capable of powering 21st century lifestyles and our digital economy while also meeting ever-growing consumer demand.
With the digital divide shrinking, businesses booming and test scores improving, we can’t afford to let this unprecedented progress slip through our typing fingers. That’s where broadband comes in. Whether it’s federally regulated or privately funded, we have to make sure our computers, smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices can keep up with the growing demand for internet access.
If the Internet slows down, so will our growth; and then you can kiss digital classrooms, app stores and millions of jobs goodbye. America’s dependence on broadband is almost as severe as our need for fossil fuels. If we were to run out of this valuable resource, we’d be relegated to paying for goods with cash or check, finding our way around a new city with a paper map and keeping in touch with our friends and family through phone calls. Call me crazy, but I think we can all agree that we don’t want to go back to the 80s.
Chelsea McCullough serves as Executive Director of Texans for Economic Progress, a statewide coalition that advocates greater access to tech education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure.