Special to WRAL Tech Wire

(Editor’s note: Now in its fourth year, the 12 Days of Broadband runs Dec. 4 through Dec. 19 highlighting a dozen innovations and stories directly impacted by the expanding reach of high-speed connectivity this year in North Carolina and throughout the country.)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – In October, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) found that Americans are rapidly embracing mobile Internet devices such as smart phones and tablet computers for a wide range of activities beyond just voice communications, such as checking email and using social networks.

The NTIA’s Exploring the Digital Nation: Embracing the Mobile Internet, which is based on a U.S. Census Bureau survey from October 2012 of more than 53,000 households, found that Americans were increasingly using their mobile devices to engage in applications they might have previously done on a desktop or laptop computer or not at all.

Between July 2011 and October 2012, the report found large increases in mobile phone users 25 and older who used their devices to download mobile applications (22 percent to 32 percent), browse the Web (33 percent to 42 percent), check their email (33 percent to 43 percent), and use social networks (22 percent to 30 percent).

“Our report confirms the skyrocketing demand for devices that allow users to access Internet applications nearly anywhere,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling. “To support this growth, NTIA is working hard to help make more spectrum available to commercial carriers and expand broadband access and adoption.”

By the numbers

Based on the data, mobile phones appear to be helping to narrow the digital divide – the gap between the technology haves and have nots – among traditionally disadvantaged groups.

Mobile phone use among those with family incomes below $25,000 and among disabled Americans each increased by 4 percent, growing from 73 percent to 77 percent and from 68 percent to 72 percent, respectively. Similarly, mobile phone use among seniors 65 and older grew by 4 percentage points between 2011 and 2012, from 68 percent to 72 percent.

Disparities in mobile phone adoption that remained between whites and minorities appeared to nearly vanish between 2011 and 2012. The report found that 88 percent of white users reported using mobile phones in 2012, compared with 87 percent of both African Americans and Hispanics.

Mobile phone use among rural Americans also saw an uptick of 5 percent to 85 percent respectively between 2011 and 2012. Mobile phone use among urban Americans increased more slowly during this same period, from 86 percent to 88 percent, matching the 2 percentage-point increase to 88 percent in mobile phone use among all Americans 25 and older.

Despite this growth, affluent mobile phone users and those with college degrees were more likely to engage in a range of activities on their devices than those without a high school diploma. For example, 57 percent of mobile phone-using college graduates checked email on mobile devices, compared with 19 percent of users without a high school diploma. And 63 percent of users with family incomes of $100,000 or more said they used their devices for email, compared with 27 percent of users with family incomes below $25,000 – a 36 percentage-point gap.

Internet use continues to rise

Over the last five years, the total number of Americans 16 and older that accessed the Internet on any device grew by 18 percent from 151 million in 2007 to 187 million in 2012 after adjusting for population growth.

Broadband adoption at home increased to 72 percent in 2012 from 69 percent in 2011, as previously reported by the NTIA. Despite the progress in home broadband adoption, some Americans still rely on public libraries to access the Internet.

The report found that 20 percent of those in unemployed households said someone in their household used the Internet at the library, compared with 11 percent of households overall. NTIA has worked to expand Internet access and digital literacy through its broadband grant programs, and NTIA grantees have connected more than 1,500 libraries to high-speed Internet service.

The report also found that 28 percent of households still do not use broadband at home. Those households not online at home cited a lack of interest or need (48 percent) as the main reason why, followed by 29 percent who said they could not afford home Internet service.

NTIA’s broadband programs have focused on both expanding access to broadband and encouraging broadband adoption by working with grantees to help non-adopters see how broadband can benefit them. NTIA released a broadband adoption toolkit last year detailing best practices organizations can use to help encourage Internet use.