Study: Home Broadband Subscriptions Are Falling As More Americans Live By The Smartphone

There’s a general feeling in the air that mobile everything is the wave of the future. Optimized websites, streaming apps, new data packages… everything points to a continuing trend of our lives centering around the pocket computers we all carry and still anachronistically call “phones.” It’s one of those things we all “know,” anecdotally as much as anything else. But now there’s new data showing that not only is the mobile future already here, but also it’s robust enough that consumers are starting to pull the plug on their home internet connections.

The Pew Research Center takes a regular look at how, when, where, and why Americans are or aren’t accessing the Internet. For 20 years, home internet use across all demographics was on the rise, albeit more slowly in some segments of society than in others. But their most recent study has a few surprising findings: home broadband access apparently peaked in 2013, and has dropped or, at best, stayed level, across every slice of society over the past two years.

Home broadband use hit its high point when it reached 70% of Americans, Pew reports. Now, it’s down to 67%. While three percentage points doesn’t seem all that huge, it’s a surprising backward step in an otherwise only-upward trend — and also represents millions of households.

Pew data on "smartphone only" access, December, 2015.

Pew data on “smartphone only” access, December, 2015.

It’s also not an isolated or narrow effect: the only demographic segment not to lose broadband subscribers were those with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000, according to Pew. That set of folks stayed stable, with 88% having home service. All other groups — including those at the top of the money heap, with incomes over $100,000 — saw home broadband use drop between 2% and 8% during this period of time.

But not having home broadband from a cable or telecom provider doesn’t mean families aren’t accessing the internet; they’re just going mobile-only. Overall, Pew found that 13% of Americans only had access to a smartphone for internet connectivity, up 5% since 2013.

The highest concentration of smartphone-only users is found, generally, among the young and the poor: Americans under age 29, with incomes under $20,000, not educated past high school, and/or minority groups. And that tracks with what Pew found is the most dominant reason survey respondents gave for not having home broadband service: the cost. 33% of those without broadband at home said the service is simply too expensive.

Even among wealthier groups, though, the shift to mobile feels fairly inevitable in the long run. It makes intuitive sense that with the tech available, everyone will move to access-anywhere data over time in the same way that most home users have drifted away from desktop computers and toward portable devices.

But despite the many and rapid advances in mobile technology, a life lived only on 4G is still not quite on par with traditional, fixed broadband. Mobile connectivity remains generally slower and the data caps far, far lower. The cost-per-gigabyte for mobile streaming is still ludicrously higher than for WiFi. (In our test-case scenario last year, we calculated up to a 2000% difference for plausible real-world streaming video use on cable vs. on 4G.)

Of course, this is also where all of those zero rating programs, like T-Mobile’s new Binge On, come in handy. If streaming video, 70% of prime-time internet use, doesn’t count against your data caps, that can become another tick mark in the “drop the Comcast bill, already” column for many users.

The FCC’s job to shape policy so that broadband access is available to everyone who wants it, and they have to provide regular reports on their progress. The FCC mentioned the presence and effects of mobile data in the 2012 and 2015 reports, but the commission is still undecided on how, specifically, they should count mobile broadband access in their tallies. They are asking how they should make that decision, though, which is the first step in the bureaucratic process of actually doing it.

Still, it’s much too soon to start crowing over the demise of cable. The survey respondents who don’t have broadband access at home weren’t exactly happy about it. Over half, across all races, felt that not having home access put them at a disadvantage for job hunting, Nearly half, 46%, felt that not having home service hurt them when it came to learning about or accessing government services. And well over 40% also felt that that they were missing out on opportunities to get health information or learn other new things that would improve their lives.

In total, 69% of all respondents, both with and without access at home, said they felt that those without home broadband were at a significant disadvantage. Seems like the FCC continues to have its work cut out.

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