For Some Americans, Smartphones Offer Their Only Internet Access

About 7 percent of U.S. smartphone owners use their phones for all their Web access, including 18 percent who have used them to apply for a job, Pew Research finds.

Pew Research, smartphone study, Americans and smartphones

It may seem like everyone around us has a smartphone nowadays, but that conclusion is wrong, according to a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center. In fact, only 64 percent of U.S. adults own and use a smartphone, leaving a full 36 percent of U.S. adults out of the smartphone marketplace.

That's just more than one in three U.S. adults, which is a substantial number who aren't smartphone users.

At the same time, the 60-page study, titled "U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015," also found that some 7 percent of U.S. adults depend mostly on their smartphones for Internet access because they have no broadband access at home.

That last finding, Aaron Smith, a senior researcher for Pew Research, told eWEEK, is one of the most fascinating nuggets of information that arose in the group's latest study.

"That sort of smartphone dependency in that group is a really interesting one and is a group that faces some really interesting challenges," said Smith in an interview on April 3. "It really fits into this notion that there are groups of people who are very reliant on their smartphones for Internet access. It may not be preferable, but it's what they have."

Another stunning finding, he said, is that some 18 percent of smartphone owners said they have used their smartphones to apply online for jobs. For anyone who has ever had trouble filling out such applications on a larger laptop, tablet or desktop computer, just imagining the same process on the comparatively tiny screen of a smartphone might give them nightmares.

"Someone will always say that you can't fill out a resume on a smartphone," when experts discuss the need for increased broadband availability for users across the nation, particularly in rural and poor areas, said Smith. "We were frankly very surprised about how many people say they have applied for a job on a smartphone. It's not impossible, but it is likely sub-optimal."

The study found that this same group of users relies heavily on their smartphones for finding information, accessing online banking, obtaining health information and more, rather than through laptops, tablets and desktop computers.

"That's an important group and one that has some really unique characteristics," said Smith. "This is one of the issues that we're going to be getting into more deeply in her future."

One issue that could be more deeply explored pertaining to these users, he said, is whether systemic changes could be made to help them use their smartphones for Internet access. "Is it really a usable and worthwhile substitute for a dedicated high-speed line that comes into your house? For some, it's all they have. It's obviously better than nothing, but is it as good as it could be?"

The latest Pew Research Center report was based on a series of 14 surveys with 1,035 smartphone owners over several weeks in November 2014, according to the group, which is a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The latest Pew study also found that the 64 percent of Americans who now have a smartphone in 2015 is up from 58 percent in early 2014, while it has increased by 29 percentage points since Pew Research conducted its first survey of smartphone ownership in the spring of 2011, when 35 percent of Americans were smartphone owners.

In addition, about 10 percent of the survey respondents said they own and use a smartphone but do not have broadband at home, according to the study. About 48 percent of the smartphone-dependent respondents said they have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone service for a period of time in the past because the cost of maintaining that service was a financial hardship. About 30 percent of those smartphone-dependent users reported that they frequently reach the maximum amount of data available as part of their mobile phone plans, with 51 percent reporting that the problem occurs at least occasionally.

"Each of these figures is substantially higher than those reported by smartphone owners with more access options at their disposal," according to the study.