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Evolving Technologies Change the Nature of Internet Use

April 19, 2016 by Giulia McHenry, Chief Economist, Office of Policy Analysis and Development

Americans’ rapid move toward mobile Internet service appears to be coming at the expense of home broadband connections, according to the latest computer and Internet use data released by NTIA. At the same time, many Americans are using a wider range of computing devices in their daily lives. Both of these findings suggest that technological changes are driving a profound shift in how Americans use the Internet, which may be opening a new digital divide based on the use of particular types of devices and Internet services.  These results come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Computer and Internet Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS), which includes data collected for NTIA in July 2015 from nearly 53,000 households.

Mobile Internet service appears to be competing more directly with wired Internet connections. According to the data, three-quarters of American households using the Internet at home in 2015 still used wired technologies for high-speed Internet service, including cable, DSL, and fiber-optic connections. However, this represents a sizable drop in wired home broadband use, from 82 percent of online households in July 2013 to 75 percent two years later. Over this same period, the data also shows that the proportion of online households that relied exclusively on mobile service at home doubled between 2013 and 2015, from 10 percent to 20 percent (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Technologies Used to Go Online at Home,
Percent of Households Using the Internet at Home, 2013-2015

Figure 1: Technologies Used to Go Online at Home,<br /><br />
	Percent of Households Using the Internet at Home, 2013-2015

The growth in online households that reported only using mobile Internet service to go online at home appears to have come at the expense of wired broadband connections. Across demographics, households have become more likely to rely on mobile Internet service to go online at home. There are significant demographic disparities, however, in the degree to which this is the case. For example, low-income households that used the Internet at home were significantly more likely to depend on a mobile data plan than those with higher incomes. The data shows 29 percent of online households with family incomes below $25,000 only used mobile Internet service at home, compared with 15 percent of those households with incomes of $100,000 or more. Although the proportion of high-income households that exclusively used mobile Internet service at home grew somewhat more rapidly between 2013 and 2015, online households with higher incomes are still far less reliant on mobile alone for Internet access than those in the lowest income group (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Use of Mobile Internet Service Alone to Go Online at Home
by Family Income, Percent of Households Using the Internet at Home, 2013-2015

 Figure 2: Use of Mobile Internet Service Alone to Go Online at Home<br /><br />
	by Family Income, Percent of Households Using the Internet at Home, 2013-2015

These results suggest that although wired Internet service continued to be the preferred mode of home Internet use in 2015 among those most likely to be able to afford it, the use of mobile data plans is clearly becoming more popular across demographics. In light of the advantages and limitations of mobile Internet service, policymakers should consider the implications of this shift when crafting policies aimed at getting all Americans online. It is also important to note that all of the figures above describe households that use the Internet at home. Twenty-seven percent of American households still do not use any Internet service from home, reflecting persistent disparities in adoption.

Americans Use a Larger Variety of Computing Devices

Meanwhile, continuing a trend we previously reported, Americans are increasingly relying on a wide range of devices to meet their computing needs. Smartphone use rose from 45 percent of Americans in 2013 to 53 percent in 2015, surpassing laptops to become the most widely-used computing device. Tablet use also increased substantially during this period. Furthermore, we also saw a big jump from 2013—18 percent to 27 percent—in the proportion of Americans who used smart televisions and TV-connected devices in 2015. In contrast, laptop use remained steady in 2015, while desktop computer use continued to slide. NTIA also began tracking the use of wearable devices in 2015, and found that so far, only 1 percent of Americans had adopted this new mode of computing (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Use of Selected Computing Devices,
Percent of Americans Ages 3+, 2013-2015

 Figure 3: Use of Selected Computing Devices,<br /><br />
	Percent of Americans Ages 3+, 2013-2015

The evolving nature of computing in the United States is also characterized by an increasing number of devices used by individuals in their daily lives. Fifty-seven percent of Americans used at least two types of Internet-connected devices in 2015, compared with 52 percent in 2013. Moreover, 37 percent indicated that they used at least three different types of devices in 2015, up from 32 percent in 2013. Americans are no longer content to be tethered to a glowing screen at a desk; we want technology available wherever and whenever we desire, and in whatever form is most conducive to the task at hand.

The plethora of connected devices now available opens up exciting possibilities, though it also raises the specter of a new type of digital divide. This new divide is characterized not solely by whether an individual can use the Internet, but by the full range of capabilities available to the user, including whether that person can access sufficient service and a device that is suited to a particular task.

This is the second post in our series on computer and Internet use in 2015. Eager to read our next report? Sign up for our Data Central mailing list to stay up-to-date on the latest Digital Nation research.