Smartphones are not the silver bullet

For years “people at conferences” have been pushing me to develop a major strategy based around mobile phones as the way to help the last 9m offline people to use the internet. Although I’ve been resisting it for years, wanting to see some evidence that mobiles are actually making a difference to new internet users, I have actually been heard to say that we’re getting to a tipping point where maybe smartphones could be the silver bullet. Maybe I’ve been persuaded by my own use of a smartphone – I got it at Christmas and it’s much more of an internet device for me than a phone. I love my smartphone. So I’ve released my inner stats nerd once again and gone in search of evidence to support the hypothesis that smartphones are THE way to help the offline enjoy the benefits of the web.

Ofcom says that the use of internet on a mobile phone has gone up slightly in the last year (from 29% to 31% of all adults) this jumps dramatically when asked if they visit websites on a smartphone (77% of smartphone users do).

Three Mobile’s data (thanks @Tomps_of_London) shows that comparing the uptake of smartphones, in January 2010 42% of people on contracts had a smartphone and in December 2010 that jumped to a staggering 92%; and for PAYG phones there is also a big jump – January 2010 8% of PAYG customers had a smartphone and in December 2010 that jumped to 50%. Ofcom shows 30% of all adults have a smartphone, but much higher for some: 52% of 16-24 yr olds and 43% of people in AB socio-economic group.

So almost a third of adults have smartphones and they’re using the internet on their phones. However, the Ofcom data shows that 36% of adults use the internet just on a pc/laptop which is slightly more than the 34% that use more than one device (eg on a PC/laptop plus an alternative device). So the majority of people are not tweeting on their phone while watching BBC Question Time on their laptops.

The statistic that really jumps out for me is that a tiny 2% of all adults use the internet only on an alternative device and not on a pc/laptop – so only 2% of people use only a phone or a tablet (or other device) and never touch a desktop or laptop computer. This is the same in 2010 as it was in 2009 – it hasn’t even changed. And, although there is a difference based on age it’s not that big a difference: 5% of 16-24 yr olds only use an alternative to a pc/laptop, 3% of the 25 – 34 yr olds, and less than 1% of the 65+. Socio-economic group too makes a very small difference: 3% of DE, 2% of C1/C2, and less than 1% of AB (with 46% of ABs preferring to use more than one device).

I went in search for evidence to prove that the smartphone or a tablet is the silver bullet to help people to get online. There’s no evidence yet. With the rise in the uptake of smartphones, the very small differences in usage by younger people and people in lower socio-economic groups might be a glimmer of a tipping point. Unfortunately just because I like to tweet on my smartphone it doesn’t mean it’s the basis for a whole new strategy. Well, not yet at least.

(Note: The Ofcom UK Adults Media Literacy Audit research took place between April and October 2010. Three Mobile data came from @Tomps_of_London, latest data being from December 2010.)


A Tale of Two Issues – People & Pipes

I was very excited yesterday when I saw that Ofcom had published a great interactive map showing (among other things) availability of broadband in the UK. It meant that I could have a go at seeing what the relationship is between broadband availability and internet use.

A couple of weeks ago I published a slideshare presentation with the most up-to-date stats on internet use from ONS and Ofcom, and in here (slide 13) is the regional breakdown of internet use – that’s people who say they have ever used the internet. Internet use is about people using the internet as is broadband take-up which is people buying broadband going into their houses. Broadband availability is showing if there are any pipes going past their doors.

The benefit of the Ofcom map is that it is now at local administration level – with the exception of London which remains as a big blob at regional level.

So the highest regions for internet use (people) are London and the South East at 85.6% according to ONS. This is supported by the Ofcom broadband take-up data with Brighton and Hove having the highest take-up with 80% of people connected. Just look at the map (chose the radio button for broadband take-up) and you can see that London, the South East, and most of Southern “middle England” are all above average on broadband take-up.


However the punchline is that this data shows that the real story is that internet use is a much more complex issue than broadband availability. It’s a tale of two different issues: People AND Pipes.


Firstly, areas with “poor” broadband availability (less pipes) are still in mid to high table for internet use: Shetland Islands has 0% superfast broadband and 19.9% of the households have less than 2 Mbits/sec however they have a 71% take-up; Rutland has 0% superfast broadband availability and 22.1% at <2Mbits/sec but a high 74% take-up making it in the top 10% of areas for take-up in the UK. This story is about pipes, for these areas investment in infrastructure could make a difference to take-up, and almost certainly a high impact on the quality of the surfing experience.


Secondly, however, we have areas of the country such as the North East of England where ONS shows that only 77.3% of the people have ever used the internet and this story is now about people, non-use of the internet in these areas has little to do with infrastructure. For example, Middlesbrough has 91% availability of superfast broadband, only 9.6% of houses get <2Mbits/sec and yet only 58% of houses have taken-up broadband putting it in the lowest 10% in terms of take-up. This is very clearly seen in large parts of the bottom third of places regarding broadband take-up, lots of places with “good” broadband availability have the lowest take-up: Sandwell 55% of people use broadband, South Tyneside 57%, Stoke-on-Trent 58%, Barnsley 59%, Liverpool 59%. Here it’s not the infrastructure that is making the difference, this story is about people, persuading people of the benefits of the internet and supporting them to get the skills and confidence they need to use it.


So, it’s a tale of two very different issues: Cumbria has less pipes yet more people online, Hartlepool has more pipes and less people online. It’s clear that investment needs to continue to be in both building infrastructure and supporting people if we’re to have a truly connected nation.