As more Americans go smartphone-only, high-speed Internet becomes a luxury

The number of smartphone-only households has gone up 5 percentage points from two years ago, a new Pew Research Center survey finds. As federal regulators debate on mobile video data caps, many households say Internet access is increasingly important, but high costs are forcing them to cut the cord.

Ann Hermes /The Christian Science Monitor/File
Reginald Barnville asks a question of the instructor during a computer training at STRIVE, a program Harlem, New York in July 2011. A new Pew Research survey finds that while Americans say Internet access is increasingly important, including for applying for jobs, many are becoming increasingly dependent on a smartphone for Internet access due to the high cost of broadband service.

Americans are increasingly using a smartphone to go online, but that’s coming at the expense of a home broadband connection, a change that’s particularly pronounced among African Americans, rural residents, and low-income households, a new Pew Research Center survey finds.

Having access to high-speed Internet is often seen as a necessity for Americans as more aspects of daily life — applying for a job, getting banking information, connecting with family and friends — move online.

In September, the White House declared broadband Internet access to be a “core utility” like running water, electricity, and sewers, with Pew finding in its survey released on Wednesday that 15 percent of Americans still lack Internet access.

But in the last two years, home broadband use has decreased, from 70 percent in 2013 to 67 percent this year, as more Americans are increasingly depending exclusively on smartphones for Internet access, according to Pew.

Overall, the number of smartphone-only households has increased to 13 percent, up 5 percentage points from two years ago. The number of African Americans with a smartphone and no home broadband increasing by 9 percentage points, rural residents by 6 percentage points, and those with household incomes under $20,000 per year increased 8 percentage points.

While nearly 70 percent of Americans describe the lack of a home broadband connection as a “major disadvantage” to activities such as finding a job or accessing health information, 43 percent of those without broadband cite the cost of a broadband connection — including the price of a computer — as the reason they don’t have access.

The survey comes in the midst of a contentious debate among federal regulators about new data plans from several large mobile companies that offer unlimited video streaming in a bid to attract customers, a practice some legal experts say may violate regulations on "net neutrality" enacted in February. The services, introduced by T-Mobile, AT&T, and Comcast over the past few months, led to increased scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission, which sent letters to the companies asking for more information about their services, though it stopped short of calling the effort an investigation.

The concern among some advocates of net neutrality, which bans Internet providers from blocking or favoring particular websites at the expense of others, is that services such as T-Mobile’s Binge On could result in favoritism of particular video apps over others.

In order to offer free streaming, Ars Technica reports, Binge On reduces the quality of streaming video unless customers opt out of the company’s data cap exemption.

“Others have asserted that the reduction of video quality ‘has harmed some users,’ ” the FCC wrote in its letter to T-Mobile. It's proven to be a complex issue for the regulators, with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler previously praising T-Mobile’s service as “highly innovative and highly competitive” in November, while saying that the commission would “keep an eye on it.”

When the FCC met last week, the FCC’s two Republican commissioners criticized the letters and Mr. Wheeler’s declaration that the inquiry was not an investigation, with Commissioner Ajit Pai tweeting that “the era of permissionless innovation is over.”

“I think the FCC is trying to thread the needle,” Northwestern University law professor James Speta told the Monitor earlier this month, as the commission headed to court to contest a challenge by telecom companies to its net neutrality regulations. “They have a firm commitment to the idea that an open Internet promotes innovation, but they don’t want to shut down innovation under all circumstances, beyond that I think the agency is focused on trying to adjudicate cases on a case by case basis.”

But the seemingly-abstract debate over data caps can have real life-consequences, the Pew survey found.

“Those who are ‘smartphone dependent,’ for access,” the Pew report says, “are more likely than other users to run up against data-cap limits that often accompany smartphone service plans.”

Some 15 percent of American adults have also abandoned cable TV, while 9 percent say they’ve never had it at all because of the availability of streaming services such as Netflix.

That could potentially raise questions for regulators and companies about how net neutrality and the cost of data will evolve if more Americans increasingly adopt smartphones instead of broadband networks as their primary means of going online.

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