Updated 9:40 p.m., December 22

At a time when more Americans say high-speed digital access is critical for ordinary activities like finding a job, getting an education, or receiving healthcare, more American families are dropping broadband because of financial constraints, a new study says.

The Pew Center found that home broadband use fell nationally by 3 points from 2013 to 2015, standing now at 67% percent. The decline was even greater for rural residents; 65% said they had broadband access at home in 2013, versus 60% this year.

The trend was also more pronounced among African Americans, whose home-use of broadband fell from 62% to 54% during the two year period, and Hispanics, whose home-use fell from 56% to 50%.

The top reason survey respondents cited for not having broadband at home was cost. A third of people who lacked broadband said the monthly fee was too expensive. Ten percent said the cost of a computer was prohibitive.

Rural areas have lower per-capita and household incomes than the nation as a whole, and that could be one reason rural usage declined at a bigger rate than the nation as a whole, said researcher John B. Horrigan, one of the report’s authors. Rural residents are also older than the population as a whole, and older Americans are less likely to use broadband, he said.

Availability and quality of broadband could also play a role in rural America’s lower home use of broadband, Horrigan said. “Rural respondents were a little more likely to say that broadband was either not available or wasn’t of sufficient quality” to be worth the cost, Horrigan said.

Whatever the reasons rural families have for not getting broadband at home, it isn’t because they don’t think the service is important, Horrigan said.

In previous studies larger percentage of respondents said they didn’t have broadband because they didn’t think it was useful, Horrigan said. That’s no longer the case.

“It’s time to cross relevance off the list” of reasons people don’t get broadband, Horrigan wrote in a brief that accompanied the report.

The survey found that people think broadband is important, especially if they can’t get it. Respondents who don’t have broadband at home were even more likely than others to say that lack of broadband creates major disadvantages for basic tasks like job hunting, gaining access to government services, or keeping up with news.

The decline in broadband use has been accompanied by an increase in smartphone use, indicating that some families can’t afford to have both. Horrigan said.

The percentage of Americans who relied exclusively on their smartphone for internet access rose from 8% to 13% in the last two years. In rural areas, 15% of Americans relied exclusively on a smartphone for internet access.

Roberto Gallardo with the Mississippi State University Extension Service’s Intelligent Community Institute said the use of smartphones is helping get people online but had disadvantages. “Relying on smartphones is worrisome, especially among those groups that could benefit the most from technology and its applications,” he said. “Smartphones are coupled with limited data plans. The cost can become very high.

“Smartphones help but they also make it harder to argue for the need of home broadband,” he said. “It is very important to educate people on the importance of broadband at home and how it complements smartphone internet access.”

Sharon Strover, a telecommunications professor the University of Texas at Austin said smartphones had become more useful but still could not replace broadband for “productivity purposes: work-related interactions  or information-intensive transactions that require a keyboard and a larger screen.”

There also might be applications or functions that require files or some sort of storage which would be awkward over a mobile phone.  I suspect kids’ homework and related school functions might fall into that category too.  As long as many of these productivity activities require some sort of text interface (rather than voice, for example), using only a phone for Internet access won’t  advance people’s capabilities in those endeavors. 

However, given a fixed or low income, it is easy to see how spending one’s limited funds on using a smartphone would seem more palatable than subscribing to fixed home broadband. 

One risk is that many phones and applications operate as “walled gardens” in the sense that they direct people only to their own site or their own service; there are fewer choices in a way.  Such services and apps render the choice and presumed ‘freedom’ of the Internet into a series of sponsored pockets that, in effect, inhibit some of the exploration and comparisons for which the Internet can be so good.

Residents who have trouble paying for broadband could get help from a proposal from the Federal Communications System to reform telephone subsidies for low-income Americans to help pay for broadband. The FCC’s Lifeline modernization program would let low-income consumers opt to use the phone subsidy to provide broadband instead. “This could have an impact for rural households where cost is the limiting factor.” said Brian Whitacre, a rural economist specializing in broadband communications and community development at Oklahoma State University.

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