Digital divide of a different sort: Wireless access methods vary by demographic

Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

The philosophy of a smarter planet is one that is very much informed by the notion that wireless data and communications coverage is fairly ubiquitous -- or at least becoming moreso. That's why I found the results of a new Pew Research Center, which pegs U.S. wireless Internet usage at about 56 percent, to be intriguing.

First, let me clarify. The 56 percent number refers to the number of Americans that have "some point" have used wireless access methods. Close to 40 percent of Americans, for example, have used a notebook computer to access the Internet, while approximately 32 percent have used their mobile phone or handheld device to check e-mail, access the Internet or send instant messages. Not quite half, but definitely growing.

The latter number in particular is notable, because it's up from 24 percent in December 2007. The data also suggest more frequent usage of wireless Internet access. In December 2007, for example, approximately 11 percent of Americans said they had accessed the Internet with their mobile device YESTERDAY; by the time the survey was conducted in April 2009, that comparable number climbed to 19 percent.

Personally speaking, though, I don't even find these to be the most interesting numbers.

The more notable point as far as I'm concerned is the fact that African Americans, generally speaking, were the most active users of mobile internet services, according to the Pew survey. Approximately 48 percent of the African American respondents said they had used their mobile device at least once to send e-mail, use instant messaging or access the Internet. About 29 percent of them said they use the Internet on their handheld at least once during an average day.

According to the Pew research, white Americans still are more likely to go online with a computer than with a mobile phone on a typical day.

I never even considered this before, but it sure makes sense to me, given the level of mobile phone use across the area in which I live, which abuts Paterson, N.J., a rich demographic melting pot snugged up the rather suburban white demographic of Bergen County.

Although Pew does not go out of its way to analyze the results, it is clear to me that businesses need to consider carefully the methods by which their customers may be gathering information about their products and services.

For example, why would you even THINK about making your Web site content exclusive to Internet Explorer (yes, people still do it!) when you know that a chunk of your customers won't be able to access the information. Forget the Macintosh users like me, do you REALLY want to cut off mobile phone users. Better yet, optimize your site for mobile use, so that those users have an even richer experience.

I'm not suggesting that we reinforce the Digital Divide, but that we remember it. Is a desktop computer really the way that most people will be accessing information about their electricity usage? Will consumers sit down in front of their notebook to pull up other information made available via the smart grid. I don't think so.

The Pew survey covered 2,253 American adults, who were interviewed in April 2009. Pew makes a point of mentioning that 561 of those participants were on their mobile phone when the interview was conducted.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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