To a point.
According to U.S. Census data, the growth in smartphone use in recent years has helped shrink the Internet access disparity gaps that exists between better educated, high-income residents and their less educated, lower-income counterparts.
Technology industry experts say lack of Internet access has stifled many low-income and minority residents' educational and economic opportunities. Still, while smartphones have helped, greater access to at-home broadband Internet is needed to truly close the disparity gap, particularly in rural areas where the gap is the widest, experts say.
Census data released in June show that in 2011, when compared to percentages of home Internet use, smartphones appeared to be leveling the Internet use disparities traditionally present for race and ethnicity groups. While 27 percentage points separated the highest and lowest reported rates of home Internet use, a smaller gap of 18 percentage points emerged once smartphone use was factored into overall connectivity rates, the data shows.
"We're at an interesting moment with wireless Internet," said Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas. "Many people, including people in government, think the increasing availability of [smartphones] will solve the digital divide in rural areas."
Area residents who have held off buying smart phones due to low incomes could soon have some more affordable options. MetroPCS, a Texas-based cell phone carrier that recently merged with the nationwide phone carrier T-Mobile, brought its low-income focused smartphone plans into Alabama in late July and will continue that expansion into the Calhoun County area in the coming weeks.
Specifically, MetroPCS will open a service store in Oxford in September, followed by a store in Anniston a few weeks later and then finally one in Jacksonville.
The company offers relatively cheap, $40, $50 and $60-a-month smartphone plans without a contract, as opposed to more traditional two-year smartphone contracts among larger companies like Verizon and AT&T, said Jon Cox, MetroPCS' director of sales for Alabama. The monthly payments include all taxes and fees.
"We're focusing on people who are looking for more affordable service," Cox said.
The company sells a variety of Android and Windows brand smartphones with its plans, but not Apple's iPhone. All the phones will be available on T-Mobile's 4th generation network. 4G technology offered by cell phone carriers provides the fastest Internet data speeds for smartphones.
Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications analyst, said MetroPCS and T-Mobile are trying to offer a cheaper phone plan model different from the ones offered by Verizon and AT&T and Sprint, which involves pre-paid phones.
"The prepaid market is growing rapidly because it costs less," Kagan said. "T-Mobile wants to enter that space with a totally new plan."
Census data help show why that market exists. According to figures from 2011, rural states, including Alabama, had high disparity rates of at-home Internet use overall, i.e, non-smartphone. The census data shows that 19.9 percent of Alabamians in 2011 reported having no computer in the home — placing Alabama ninth among the top 10 states with the lowest Internet connectivity rates. The state with the lowest Internet connectivity rate was Mississippi with 26.6 percent of its population reporting they did not have a computer in the home.
"In rural areas, the availability of Internet is still an issue ... in urban areas people are pretty well-served," Strover said. "When you look at adoption figures, you're going to see a persistent gap between urban and more rural, poor people."
The lack of Internet access was more prevalent among minorities and low income residents, the census data show. For instance, 75 percent of whites reported having Internet in the home, while about 60 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics reported the same. Meanwhile, about 86 percent of high income individuals reported connecting to the Internet, compared with 49.8 percent of individuals living in households making less than $25,000.
The lack of Internet access also hurts low income and minority residents' ability to move up the economic ladder, said Joseph Miller, deputy director of the Media and Technology Institute, which is part of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The Joint Center is a national nonprofit research and public policy institution.
"The Internet is not just for consumption, it's an engine for accessing jobs and starting small online businesses," Miller said.
Miller said smartphones are helping to close the Internet gap, but they can't do it completely.
"We see mobile broadband as an on-ramp, but we don't see it being as good as full in-home broadband Internet," Miller said. "There are still things you can do on a desktop computer that you can't do on mobile devices, like starting a business."
Strover agreed that smartphones still do have some limitations.
"It's hard to fill out forms like job applications on those small screens," she said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.