Benner on Tech: Smartphones and Digital Divides

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
Read More.
a | A

People are Talking About…

The digital divide in terms of basic Internet access is a real thing in the U.S., and a new Pew Research report shows that smartphones are emerging as an important battleground in closing the gap.

Phone ownership (and an affordable cellular plan) gives some of the least well-off Americans their primary access to online job searches and applications, online program enrollments, contact with friends and access to all of the information that Google has to offer -- intel and power that the constantly connected might take for granted.

Here are the numbers from Pew’s “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015” report that caught my eye:

10 percent of Americans own a smartphone but do not have any other form of high-speed Internet access at home beyond their phone’s data plan.

15 percent of Americans own a smartphone but say that they have a limited number of ways to get online other than their cell phone.

Pew says the groups most likely to depend on smartphones for connectivity include younger adults, low-income families, people without college degrees and black and Latino citizens.

Compared with smartphone owners who are less reliant on their mobile devices, these smartphone-dependent users are less likely to own some other type of computing device, less likely to have a bank account, less likely to be covered by health insurance and more likely to rent or to live with a friend or family member rather than own their own home.

Battles over Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity -- connection quality and speed, corporate monopolies and pricing -- aren’t just the business concerns of companies like Google and Verizon. They impact a lot more than our ability to watch House of Cards on our iPhones. It's good to remember that cell phone connection issues are battles that directly impact some of the country’s most vulnerable people and that small shifts in pricing and policy can increase or cut off access to an important tool.

** This week in Tech Battles with Discrimination: Dozens of tech executives and leaders signed a statement asking all states to protect the rights of gay and transgender citizens. Signees include Max Levchin (Affirm), Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Dick Costolo (Twitter) and John Donahoe (EBay).

I’m working on a column about this that will publish later in the day, but the upshot is that one reason tech is coming out so strong on this issue is because sexual preference is one of the few ways in which the tech industry is relatively diverse and has embraced diversity. When it comes to race, ethnicity and gender, the industry is pretty homogeneous; there’s little impetus to stand up for the rights of people in those groups.

Liz Gannes at Re/code has a different take on this glaring double standard. She very smartly points out that it’s easier for tech execs “to speak out when it comes to some bigots in flyover country who passed an actual law. And it’s harder to come up with solutions for your own institutional problem.”

Weekend Reads

Barcade has been big in Brooklyn for years, and now a beer and arcade craze is sweeping the country. (Bloomberg)

The PayPal Mafia has emerged as one of the hottest groups of investors and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. (the New York Times)

Tech ruined April Fools' Day. “April 2 regrets are, at this point, almost as common as April 1 fools.” (the Atlantic)

Technology and the future of loneliness. (the Guardian)

Ventureland

Airbnb now operates in Cuba. (the Wall Street Journal)

Meerkat was the hottest two weeks ago and now, $14 million in venture funding later, its popularity in the app store has plummeted. (the Verge)

Uber is investigating a driver who may have tried to break into the home of a woman he had just dropped off at the airport. (Ars Technica)

Companies

Apple wants the TV networks to take care of the cost and logistics of the streaming infrastructure for a Web video service. (Re/code) Chinese mobile phone buyers aren’t very excited about the company’s trade-in program. (ZD Net)

Amazon executives brought their own lanyards to a conference so they wouldn’t have to wear lanyards with their competitor Jet’s logo. (Bloomberg)

Facebook just debuted a competitor to Snapchat’s Our Stories feature. (TechCrunch)

Google is under pressure from the European Commission, the European Union’s top antitrust body, which has sought permission to publish information from online commerce and travel companies that have complained about the company. (the Wall Street Journal) Here’s a primer on the EU’s case against the company.

Security Watch

The U.S. can use economic sanctions against cyber-attackers per an executive order that U.S. President Barack Obama signed Wednesday.

Media Files

Sling TV will offer HBO content for $15 a month, making Apple’s exclusive deal with HBO a little less exclusive. (Bloomberg)

News and Notes

UBS is opening a research lab to figure out how banks can use the blockchain. (the Wall Street Journal)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net