Over the last couple of decades, though less so in the last several years, policy analysts have warned about the “digital divide,” calling for all sorts of policies and programs to “solve” the problem.
For many of us, those calls were similar to the worries about the one billion human beings who never had made a phone call. As it turns out, wireless services are solving both problems. In other words, the “divide” between people with phone service, like the “divide” between people with Internet access, is in the process of being solved by mobile services, almost without any purposeful and direct activity by governments or non-governmental organizations.
The point is that, more often than is imagined, “problems” in the communications arena now are getting solved by market mechanisms, in ways policymakers might not even have imagined.
While age, education, and household income are the strongest negative predictors for Internet use in the United States, for example, “access” isn’t a big problem.
In the last decade, only six percent of non-users say the reason they don’t use the Internet is because they cannot get access. And that percentage will continue to drop.
Instead, a primary reason cited by non-users for why they don’t log on is a belief the Internet isn’t relevant to their information or communication needs.
When the Pew Internet Project first began writing about the role of the internet in American life in 2000, there were stark differences between those who were using the internet and those who were not. Today, though differences in Internet access still exist among different demographic groups, especially when it comes to access to high-speed broadband at home, the ways in which people connect to the internet are also much more varied today than they were in 2000.
The point is that Internet access is no longer synonymous with going online with a desktop computer. Mobile is a preferred way of using broadband access, in other word.
Currently, 88 percent of American adults have a cell phone, 57 percent have a laptop, 19 percent own an e-book reader, and 19 percent have a tablet computer; and about 63 percent go online wirelessly with one of those devices.
The rise of mobile is significant. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic Internet access are using wireless connections to go online.
Among smart phone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of Internet access.
Both African Americans and English-speaking Latinos are as likely as whites to own a mobile phone, and are more likely to use their phones for a wider range of activities.
The point is that spending lots of time and money to “solve” broadband problems, beyond letting people make their own decisions about what they want to buy, no longer is so wise.
That isn’t to say regulators should not keep watch, to ensure that markets are competitive. But neither should obstacles be placed in the way of market-based services that allow service providers to make enough money to keep investing in their facilities.
Given the dramatic progress the global telecom industry has made in providing telecom services to the “next billion” people, and the virtual closing of the “broadband gap” in the United States, perhaps it would be wise to draw a lesson. Some tough problems can solve themselves.