It has been over 20 years since the term “digital divide” was coined to describe unequal access to digital technologies at the start of widespread access to the internet. The ubiquity of smart phones has reduced this conversation as online access has reached near saturation points. In late June, Pew reported that over 9 in 10 adults between 18-50 and 8 in 10 adults between 50 and 64 used the internet. Even the category of “over 65 years old” had a solid majority, with 58% reporting that they use the internet. However, this apparent success belies some important issues of class that speak to larger dynamics of the high cost of being poor.
Internet access is a necessity in contemporary life, but while access has become nearly universal, it is still distributed unequally. According to Pew, 25% of Americans are “smartphone dependent.” They have smartphones but either don’t have high-speed internet at home or have “limited options” for online access other than by smart phone. They generally have low levels of education and income and are likely to be non-white and young. Indeed, 13% of Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year are smartphone dependent versus 1% of Americans with incomes over $100,000.
Poor people routinely pay more for access capital. They are, for example, charged higher interest rates by exploitative payday lender services. That pattern also applies to cell phones. In working class neighborhoods of American cities, cell phone stores are almost as ubiquitous as payday lenders. The dedicated pay-as-you-go cell phone services available from these outlets, like Boost Mobile or TracPhones, as well as the major contract carriers like ATT, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, offer pay-as-you-go options that may be affordable on a monthly basis but cost much more over time than the purchase plans that people with more disposable income can afford.
The current access and cost gap has several implications, which we can perhaps understand best by considering how it would affect someone using a smartphone to apply for jobs. Guy Standing argues that members of the precariat spend 15% of their time looking for work. According to Pew, smartphone dependent users are nearly twice as likely as non-dependent users to use their phone in job search activities and four times as likely to submit application materials than non-dependent users. That raises two problems.
First, applying for a job is more costly for them than for most others. This is true, by the way, for Americans in general. They pay significantly more for lower speeds and (for mobile) lower data caps than consumers in other industrialized countries. For example, in the U.S. three gigs of prepaid data costs an average of $85 a month versus $9 a month in England. Although these costs are coming down somewhat (in part due to the FCC’s insistence that the major cell phone service providers permit smaller services to access their networks), mobile internet pricing is based on the amount of data used. According to Pew, half of “smartphone dependent” Americans “frequently” or “occasionally” reach their monthly data caps, this could potentially reduce their ability to search for and apply for jobs.
In addition, mobile phone pricing plans favor those with more disposable income. When Time examined different models of obtaining smart phone service, unsurprisingly, the most financially prudent were those where people purchased unlocked phones and remained out of contract. However, that option requires an upfront payment of $400 to $600 for the phone, which puts it out of reach for lower income Americans. Conversely, the most exploitative plans in the long term are those with the lowest initial costs. Indeed, Pew found that half of smartphone dependent users report having to cancel services for financial reasons. So not only do poorer people pay more to apply for a job, if they have to cancel for financial reasons, neither they nor potential employers can follow up on an application easily.
Second, while phones and tablets work well for short communications, mobile websites often have reduced functionality as compared to full sites. While discussions of usability often focus on the retail website environment, job search or other kinds of non-commercial sites often have less money to invest in the duplicative coding necessary for separate mobile and full function sites. These limitations are somewhat ameliorated by job searching apps like monster.com or simplyhired.com, but it’s much more difficult to compose and format application materials on a phone rather than on a traditional computer. In 2013, CareerBuilder.com surveyed 680 clients and found half had “horrendous” and “cumbersome” mobile career sites. The issues included the number of pages that needed to be loaded, the type and number of fields that needed to to be filled out, and difficulties sorting and navigating listings. Moreover, last year, only 26 of Fortune 500 companies offered application processes that had been optimized for mobile access.
In sum, while the Pew survey’s finding that more Americans are online than ever before suggests that the old digital divide has shrunk, new costs and challenges emerge in the smartphone era. If “the days of walking in and filling out an unsolicited paper application are gone,” we need to address how today’s access and cost gap perpetuates the high cost of being poor.
Alex Russo is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University and author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks (Duke 2010).