Cellphones helping minorities close gap on Internet access?

Blacks and Hispanics seem more likely than whites to use cellphones instead of home computers to get Internet access, a new report finds. Can that help them narrow the digital divide?

By , Staff writer

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    A teenage girl uses a cellphone in this photo. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to access the Web from a cellphone rather than from an Internet-connected home computer, report finds.
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Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to access the Web from a cellphone rather than from an Internet-connected home computer, an indication that they are using the cheaper mobile devices to overcome the so-called digital divide.

That finding, in a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center, by no means implies parity has been reached. Fewer Hispanics and blacks than whites went online last year or owned a cellphone. Two-thirds of adult Hispanics and black Americans went online in 2010 compared with 77 percent percent of white adults. And 76 percent of Hispanics and 79 percent of blacks owned a mobile phone, compared with 85 percent of whites.

The difference in access to technology is more pronounced when it comes to Internet service at home. Forty-five percent of Latinos and 52 percent of blacks have broadband at home, compared with 65 percent of whites.

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The report suggests that Latinos and blacks are opting to access the Internet on their phones instead. Some 6 percent of Latinos and blacks report that they access the Web from a cellphone but otherwise have no Internet service at home, compared with only 1 percent of whites.

This makes a lot of sense, says Cathie Norris, regents professor in the Department of Learning Technologies at the University of Northern Texas. Blacks and Hispanics, on average, have lower levels of education and earn less than whites. By opting for a phone rather than a computer, "you get the most access for the least amount of money,” she says. The phone is subsidized, can go anywhere, and isn't as costly as a computer.

But the report also signals that the explanation may not be that simple.

“The conventional wisdom is that it’s all about money – that’s why they’re more likely to access the Internet from a cellphone,” says Gretchen Livingston, Pew senior researcher and author of the report. “But there’s something else going on. Because even when we control for income at those lower levels [individuals making under $50,000], Latinos are still more likely to be dependent on cellphones than whites [are] for Internet use.“

The reason more low-income Hispanics and blacks than low-income whites choose to access the Web via their phones may not be crystal clear. But, says Ms. Livingston, "I have no doubt, given the importance of the Hispanic demographic, that marketers are all over it."

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