When Erick Huerta was growing up in Los Angeles, his family could not afford a computer. His mother sold tamales from a street-side stall, and his father drove a taxi. Huerta and his three sisters were more worried whether their parents could pay rent than whether they could get online.
Yet when Huerta, 27, enrolled at East Los Angeles College, he knew he would need reliable Internet access for his coursework. So four years ago, he spent $250 of his scholarship money on a piece of technology he could afford: a smartphone. He split the cost of a wireless plan with a friend and used his iPhone for almost everything, from checking email and taking notes to conducting research and writing papers.
The experience typically proved exasperating. Typing papers entailed pecking away for hours on the small screen, an exercise that left his fingers aching and numb. Registering for classes, seeking scholarships and applying for jobs often required visiting websites that were effectively off limits, unreadable on mobile devices.
The experience was like window shopping, without being able to enter the store and buy the merchandise. “You can see the information that you want, but you can’t grasp it fully until you’re on a desktop,” Huerta says, adding that he recently saved up enough money to buy a laptop computer -– a considerable upgrade. “A smartphone does a lot of everything, but it doesn’t do enough.”
Huerta’s attempt to substitute a smartphone for a full-sized computer represents a trend that some say holds the potential to bridge the digital divide. Growing numbers of low-income Americans are relying upon smartphones as their primary means of reaching the Internet, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. Yet Huerta’s frustration also highlights why this development may fall short of closing the divide, instead bringing people into contact with a digital medium they cannot fully exploit.
The mobile telecommunications industry portrays smartphones as a progressive force, one that is delivering Web access to historically disadvantaged communities. It cites data showing that African Americans and Latinos are now more likely to own smartphones than whites. But as Huerta and others have discovered, mobile devices come with the built-in limits of stripped-down Web browsers, offering connections that are typically slower and less reliable than wired broadband links.
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