While smartphones are bringing the Internet into the hands of people who otherwise would lack high-speed Internet access, experts question whether that is effectively closing the digital divide.
"We don't believe it really closes the digital divide in a meaningful enough way. There are so many essential things that people can't do on smartphones that they need a home computer for," said Stephanie Chen, energy and telecommunications policy director for Berkeley, Calif.-based racial justice policy and advocacy organization Greenlining Institute.
Still current research shows big gains in access to the Internet.
According to Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, as of May approximately 70 percent of adults 18 and older have a high-speed broadband Internet connection at home, up from 66 percent in April 2012.
A demographic breakdown of those users shows that income, education and age remain the strongest deciding factors: 80 percent of survey participants ages 18-29 had home broadband compared to 43 percent of those 65 and older.
Eighty-nine percent of college graduates surveyed had home broadband service compared to 37 percent of those without a high school diploma. And while more than half (54 percent) of participants making less than $30,000 per year had broadband at home, 88 percent of those making $75,000 or more were using the service.
For smartphone users, the figures were a little less straightforward.
The survey found 56 percent of American adults use a smartphone of some kind, with 46 percent having both a smartphone and broadband Internet at home. Twenty-four percent were found to have home broadband but no smartphone, while 10 percent have a smartphone but no home broadband.
A solid 20 percent of respondents said they didn't have either connection.
Although Pew acknowledges that it does not count smartphone users as broadband users -- due to concerns surrounding connectivity, speed and ability to conduct tasks such as updating resumes or viewing educational material -- it says that counting smartphone users as broadband users would bring the national broadband adoption total to 80 percent.
The change also would put high numbers of black and Latino American smartphone users on par with broadband users. A Pew survey from July notes that 44 percent of black and Latino adults own smartphones, compared to 30 percent of whites, a difference that the Internet and American Life survey says levels the playing field for all.
"While blacks and Latinos are less likely to have access to home broadband than whites, their use of smartphones nearly eliminates that difference," reads the American Life survey.
But lumping smartphone users into such a broad category dismisses significant shortcomings that mobile-only users face when connecting to the Internet, said Ms. Chen.
Beyond the difficulties in handling basic tasks such as filling out online job applications, helping children with homework and filing taxes, she noted that in her home state the difference between a broadband connection and smartphone could be life and death. She said the Covered California Health Exchange, which is scheduled to go into effect next year as part of the Affordable Care Act, will let the state's residents enroll online but not through a mobile website.
Benjamin Weaver, community programs and technology coordinator for Lawrenceville-based HandsOn Tech program, said mobile access could someday completely bridge gaps in knowledge between broadband and smartphone users, but not in its current state.
HandsOn Tech -- a joint initiative of Lawrenceville-based Pittsburgh Cares, the Points of Life Foundation, AmeriCorps VISTA and Google -- provides technology training and assistance to nonprofits and low-income businesses.
Mr. Weaver said the program encourages the organizations that it assists to develop mobile websites and strategies that will help them reach the low-income clients they serve. However, he said building a mobile infrastructure is a slow process that many organizations, including state and local government entities, are only beginning to take on.
"I never tried to renew a driver's license on a smartphone, but I can't imagine it works very well," he said.
To truly address the divide, Ms. Chen said the federal government should give broadband access the same treatment given to land-line telephone access.
She said land-line access reached more than 90 percent of the country by the 1970s thanks to federal initiatives dedicated toward building infrastructure, promoting affordability and an overall attitude that telephone access was more of a need than a luxury.
The time is long overdue, said Ms. Chen, for broadband access to be given similar consideration.
"We need to start treating broadband like today's basic communications service because that's what it's become for society," she said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.