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Smart Phone Technology helps African-Americans, Hispanics Close Digital Divide

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By Chris Levister –

When Riverside Community College students Shelia Wellington and Daniel Garrett purchased Christmas gifts for friends and loved ones last week, they escaped the parking lot hassles and holiday crowds at local malls.

Rather, they completed their holiday shopping over a steamy latte at the local Starbucks.

“All you need is Wi-Fi, a mobile device and a credit card.” That’s Daniel Garrett, about to make a major holiday purchase using his cellphone. “Okay I’m on Best Buy’s website. Go to the TV section, click on the one I want to buy, plug in my credit card number and walah! I just spent $682.92 on a Sony flat panel television,” says Garrett. “Christmas Day that baby is going be under my mom’s tree.”

“Goodbye wireline, hello wireless,” says Wellington. “When I want to access the Internet my iPhone is all I need.” This weekend she text messaged her Christmas shopping order from her phone to Victoria Secret.

“The whole process took about 12 minutes. They’ll holiday wrap my order and ship it in time for Christmas.”

Wellington and Garrett are part of a new generation of consumers, particularly young African Americans and Hispanics who are using cell phones, PDAs, smart phones and other hand held devices to access the Internet.

African-Americans are steadily gaining access to and ease with the Internet, signaling a remarkable closing of the “digital divide” that many experts had worried would be a crippling disadvantage in achieving success.

Civil rights leaders, educators and national policy makers warned for years that the Internet was bypassing African-Americans and some Hispanics as whites and Asian Americans were rapidly increasing their use of it.

Once thought to be on the wrong side of the Digital Divide African Americans and Hispanics are “leapfrogging” over wire line technology and instead using wireless devices in unprecedented numbers according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study.

The study describes how wireless connections are helping to narrow the Digital Divide. Wireless technology is enabling many Americans to access the Internet for the first time and for many has allowed them to escape the cost of traditional hardwire phone service and installing personal computing equipment in the home.

Pew found that African Americans and English speaking Hispanics use their mobile devices to access the Internet far more than average. 48% of African Americans and 47% of Hispanics used the Internet from a mobile device, compared to an average of 32% among all adults nationwide. That’s huge, 141% jump from 2007, when only 12% of African Americans used the Internet on their mobiles on a given day.

The study found that wireless Internet use among the population as a whole has skyrocketed. A November 2009 study showed as many as 73% of Americans access the Internet at least twice a week. Much of that online activity is generated with the use of mobile devices.

The falling price of laptops, more computers in public schools and libraries and the third generation of cellphones and handheld devices that connect to the Internet have contributed to closing the divide, Internet experts say.

Those experts warn, make no mistake the Digital Divide persists. In recent years, there has been much discussion surrounding Black participation in digital technology. Shut out at the birth of digital technologies when wealth was created, studies and reports have exposed disparities and helped to close the gap between African-Americans and whites in computer ownership and Internet access.

Young African-Americans like Wellington and Garrett are reversing the “lock out” trend driving an explosion in online entertainment, social networking, shopping and online education. The notion of shopping from Starbucks is particularly encouraging news for retailers sweating over the effects of a sagging economy. This holiday online sales are expected to grow as much as 12% over 2008, outpacing so called traditional “brick and mortar” sales.

Garrett who is majoring in information technology at RCC sees an even greater benefit to closing the digital divide.

“Wireless is the only type of access that many Hispanics and African-Americans have, so embracing every aspect of the technology is critical to creating a level playing field,” he said. It’s not just about shopping, entertainment and social networking. “It’s the way of the future. Entering a global technology-driven workplace without technological skills is a recipe for unemployment.”


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