A recent survey of adults who use their cell
phones to access the Internet found that 2 in 5 Latinos and half of African
Americans- double the rate of Whites- conduct a majority or all of their web
browsing via their cell phones. While smart phones enable communities to cross
over the traditional digital divide and become Internet users, they are not
perfect solutions. Data caps have the potential to restrict how and when Internet
users go online. As data caps on mobile devices become standard practice, and unlimited data plans dissappear, the
importance of carrier transparency about caps will increase.
For many people, it makes sense to rely on their smart phone
as their primary Internet connection. Families often cite high cost as a
barrier to broadband adoption. Smart phones usually cost less than laptops or
tablets and can still access the Internet. Despite the limitations of these
devices, such as the difficulty of filling out applications on a mobile site,
Latinos, African Americans, and young people are more likely to use their mobile
device as the main source of
Internet access versus a traditional computer.
Engaging in these activities with smart phones may be
convenient and affordable- but it also uses data. Cell phone companies are
increasingly implementing limits or caps on that data. These caps can turn
mobile browsing into a poor substitute for traditional wired Internet
connections. Switching to Wi-Fi for web browsing is not always an option for
users without wired broadband connections – hence the appeal of mobile devices
that access networks.
Unlike minutes called and texts sent, the measurements used
for tracking data usage are meaningless to most people. Streaming rates vary
and web pages change every day, so it can be difficult for people to develop habits
that let them guess how much data an activity will require. For example, wireless carriers cannot
even agree on how much data an activity requires: AT&T estimates
that streaming video requires 300 MB per hour. Verizon says
it is 350. If wireless carriers’
estimates vary by that much, it is not realistic to demand that users will have
an accurate understanding of the data needs of various activities.
Miscalculating network usage can cause customers to be hit
with overage fees- $10 per gigabyte in the case of AT&T and Verizon or with
slower service in the case of T-Mobile. To a family on a budget or a person who
relies on quick Internet service to complete homework, the threat of those penalties
may hinder how often they choose to go online.
As they stand, data caps can act as a deterrent to consistent
Internet use. Users who rely on
their mobile connections for Internet access must actively support government
oversight of data caps and other usage based pricing
practices that affect an affordable and open access to the Internet.
Public Knowledge, along with other public interest groups,
has repeatedly called for industry leaders to disclose
how their caps are determined. It’s also important for consumers to encourage
their providers to engage in best practices and insist on transparent and straightforward
means to measure data usage. The digital divide in communities is wide enough
without the help of data caps.