A 3.5 inch gap
October 15, 2010 by Lane Wilkinson
So, I’ve been following the debate between Bobbi Newman and my esteemed colleague Jason Griffey. In a nutshell, Bobbi argues that mobile broadband is an unacceptable substitute for broadband access and Jason disagrees. You should really read the full posts…very enlightening.
So, now, let me just get out…
*rummaging through pockets*
…my two cents.
First, beware of the futurists. Consider the following claims…
- “Sure, a laptop may provide a larger viewing area, but that’s just a formatting issue, sure to be resolved in the future.”
- “Fine, reading a novel on a 3.5” smartphone screen may be hard for you to accept, but that’s the future of reading“
- “Sure, a computer with a keyboard may be better for writing a research paper now, but that’s an artifact left over from the long hegemony of print. In 10 years, there won’t be research papers…just websites.”
- “Fine, you may prefer to use both a laptop and a smartphone for different activities, ranging from in-depth research, sustained writing, and artistic creation on your Dell to tweeting, looking-up quick-facts, and managing your schedule on your iPhone….but, in the future, you’ll do everything on your smartphone.”
A fundamental problem arises when we claim that the future will be a radically different place, yet fail to acknowledge that the future has its own future, so to speak. Sure, mobile devices may become the standard, but that doesn’t equate to technological equality, because something else will come along to reinforce the technological divide. 3G wristwatches? Holographic displays? Retinal implants? We are currently pointing to inequalities and inefficiencies that, to a great extent, exist only insofar as we can compare the status quo to some future possibilities, but this will always happen: We finally get radio signals to blanket the nation and realize we need to get radios in every home. We get radios in every home only to find television signals spreading throughout the country. We get televisions in every home just in time to need cable hookups. We finally get cable and cable-ready televisions throughout the land and then find we need to hook up our computers. And so it goes. As long as there is technology, there will be portentous omens about the dire future facing us if we do not adopt a universal something…that will instantly be outmoded. (I follow this rule of thumb: the future is going to be awesome and it will be nothing like the fortune-tellers predict. I have yet to be proved wrong.)
Second, assume, for the sake of argument, that starting tomorrow, every square inch of the United States is dripping in free
LTE access at a balls-to-the-wall -50 dBm signal strength. Okay, broadband is everywhere…now what? I mean, what is the best, least-expensive course of action for a low-income family of five that wants to connect?
- One “family” computer for internet access, writing, and research, and five inexpensive cellphones for calling, texting, tweeting, etc.?
- One shared smartphone and five inexpensive cellphones? (o_0)
- Five smartphones?
- Five netbooks?
Lots of options, but it’s pretty clear that the first option is preferable. A 12.1 inch netbook and five pre-paid phones would probably run around $550 ($300 for the netbook, $50 per phone). Five smartphones would probably run between $750 and $1000 (between $150 and $200 per phone). Throw in government subsidies and we could knock a few hundred dollars off these costs. But, the point is that mobile technology is still prohibitively expensive to act as a suitable replacement. And, as to the futurists claims that prices will fall precipitously over the next 10 years for smartphones, the same holds true for inexpensive cellphones and netbooks. I see no reason to anticipate smartphones ever being the cheaper
solution; downward market pressure will affect technology prices across the board.
Third, the entire debate revolves around choice, not technology. Even if we grant that wireless technologies are superior, the question remains: will low-income households have the option to subscribe to both wired and wireless broadband services as they see fit? The suburban hordes may be comfortable with their choices, from dial-up to DSL to cable to fiber to whatever is next, but so long as one social group has a smaller set of options than another, you cannot justifiably point to any equality.
For the record, this isn’t just an issue for low-income households. My household is within 5% of the national median. Our technology is limited to a couple of outdated G1 phones, an MSI Wind netbook, a three-year-old Macbook, and a Lenovo Ideapad on loan from work. I would love to buy an iPhone, iPad, or Droid…but groceries come first.