updated 7/22/2009 4:00:07 PM ET 2009-07-22T20:00:07

More Americans are accessing the Internet using wireless mobile devices such as smartphones and laptops, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

"Use of the Internet on mobile devices has grown sharply from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2009," with 56 percent of Americans saying that have "at some point used wireless means for online access," the Pew Center said.

While laptops, game consoles and MP3 players were cited as some of the devices used for wireless Internet access, Pew's findings show that smartphones — such as the iPhone or BlackBerrys which have Web access and e-mail — are playing a fast-growing role.

"More Americans in 2009 were turning to their handheld for non-voice data activities," the Pew Center said in its report.

In December 2007, when Pew last looked at the issue, 11 percent of Americans said they had accessed the Internet the day before via mobile phone. In April, that percentage rose to 19 percent.

Also in 2007, 24 percent said they had "at some point" used the Internet on a mobile device, compared to 32 percent in April.

"I think smartphones certainly have a good deal to do with the growth in use of mobile access," said John B. Horrigan, Pew Internet Project associate director of research. "The devices have more capabilities, networks are more readily available, and this means people are drawn to taking advantage of mobile resources."

Surprise finding
Another key finding, Pew said, is that blacks are "the most active users of the mobile Internet," with 48 percent saying they have "at one time used the Internet on a mobile device." On an "average day, 29 percent go online with a handheld — both figures are half again the national average," Pew said.

"The big surprise (in the study) was the fact that African-Americans (are) the most active users of the mobile Internet," said Horrigan. "Our 2007 survey hinted at African-Americans’ deep engagement with mobile devices, but growth in mobile Internet use, on the typical day, for this group was twice the national average from 2007 to 2009."

Horrigan said that blacks are "less likely than whites to pay for 'heavy' access devices — desktop and laptop computers. If budget is an issue for some African-Americans, the one-time expenditure of, perhaps, several hundred dollars for a computer could be a problem. The monthly fee for a mobile plan, by contrast, may seem like a more manageable expense.

"And as the capabilities of phones have improved, some may reason that online access on the mobile makes the most sense for them," he said.

For most Americans, Horrigan said, "mobile access is mainly another option for access; among all Americans who have used the mobile Internet, 83 percent have broadband at home. For African-Americans, the story is a bit different; among African-Americans who have used the Internet on a mobile device, 64 percent have broadband at home.

"Some African-Americans see mobile access as a substitute for broadband — and this might, in time, draw them more deeply into Internet use such that mobile access serves as an equalizer."

Mistique Cano, vice president of communications for the national Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said smartphones "aren't an equalizer as much as they’re a stop-gap. Many African-Americans still don’t have access to affordable broadband. Even though mobile technology gets better every day, there are still many things you can’t yet do on a phone."

Cano said the conference is "encouraged by the President’s plans to extend affordable high-speed Internet access" to more areas around the country.

"These efforts, combined with cheaper technology, will begin to close the digital divide. Until then, people will make do with the best they have — for many, that’s a smartphone," she said.

Cell phones used more for pics, texts
Pew said laptops were cited as the main way most Americans get online wirelessly, with 39 percent saying it is their "most prevalent means of wireless access," and 32 percent saying they have used a cell phone "or other hand-held device to check e-mail, access the Internet for information, or send instant messages."

"When looking across a range of access devices," Pew said, a "majority of Americans — 56 percent — have used at least one of them to go online using a wireless network." Another 24 percent of Americans are Internet users, "but say they have never gotten online wirelessly; the remaining 20 percent of adults are not Internet users."

More Americans — 69 percent compared to 58 percent in 2007 — are also starting to use their cell phones for texting, e-mailing, getting directions, snapping and sending photos, Pew said.

Texting, in particular, is up by 40 percent from 2007 to 2009, the research center found.

Being able to share data using a mobile phone is also becoming more important, the Pew report said. "Twitter and content-sharing looms large for some mobile users. One in six say they see posting or sharing content as a very important dimension to mobile access.

"The 11 percent of online users who have Twitter accounts or monitor Twitter updates are twice as likely as the average to say that sharing or posting content is very important to why they value mobile access."

Devices like iPods, game consoles and e-book readers, like Amazon's Kindle, "for now play a small role in people's wireless online habits," Pew said, finding that:

  • 45 percent of adults have iPods or MP3 players, but only 5 percent of them have used such them to go online.
  • 41 percent of adults have game consoles and 9 percent of them have used them to get to the Internet.
  • 14 percent of adults say they have a personal digital assistant and 7 percent of them have used it to go online.
  • 2 percent of adults say they own an e-book reader, but just 1 percent have used it to access the Internet.

Pew interviewed 2,253 adult Americans in April, including 561 who were interviewed on their cell phones. The margin of error in the survey is plus or minus 2 percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

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