Commentary

More Than One In 10 Depend On Smartphones For Web Access

Twelve percent of Americans are now "smartphone dependent" for Internet access, meaning they have smartphones but don't have home broadband connections, according to the Pew Research Center.

That figure is up considerably from 2013 -- when 8% of Americans were smartphone dependent -- but down slightly from last year, when 13% of the population relied on smartphones to access the Web.

Not surprisingly, people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to eschew home broadband in favor of smartphone-only access. Twenty-one percent of people who earn less than $30,000 a year are smartphone dependent, compared to just 5% of those earning more than $75,000. Pew's report is based on a survey conducted last autumn. 

Carriers likely will point to Pew's research to argue to policymakers that the market for broadband access is more competitive than it appears. While it's well established that many in the U.S. don't have much choice when it comes to a home broadband provider, wireless access is a different story -- by contrast, many people in the country can choose between the four major carriers for wireless broadband.

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But the reality is that consumers who rely on their smartphones for Internet access face some significant challenges.

For one, smartphone users face the obvious challenge of trying to navigate the Web, post comments, and access documents while using a small screen. Some people may be able to get around that by tethering their phones to laptops, but doing so presents its own problems -- including that tethering can very quickly run down a phone's battery, not to mention burn through data.

But even without tethering, smartphone-only Web users will quickly run up against data caps if they want to stream or download video. While T-Mobile and Sprint say they offer "unlimited" data plans, both reserve the right to throttle users when the network is congested. T-Mobile says it may throttle users who consume 28 GB a month, while Sprint may do so after people use 23 GB in a month.

AT&T and Verizon still have some long-time users who are on old unlimited-data plans, but AT&T says it may slow down the connections of those users who consume more than 22 GB a month. Verizon doesn't appear to be throttling its longtime subscribers with unlimited data, but is now telling those who consume more than 200 GB per month to switch to a metered-data plan.

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