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By Martha C. White
December 23, 2015
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businesswoman using cell phone and watching daughter in office
Getty Images—Getty Images

Even as more Americans are swapping out cable TV for cheaper streaming options, a smaller number are walking away from high-speed Internet — and some experts say the trend indicates an economic divide between the digital haves and have-nots.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans have broadband Internet at home, a drop from the 70% who had it two years ago. Pew calls the drop “a small but statistically significant difference,” especially given that 15% of people now identify themselves as “cord cutters.”

About 60% of those without the service said they didn’t have broadband because it cost too much, and 70% of those without high-speed Internet said they didn’t have plans to sign up for it.

One possible reason that more people are dropping broadband at home: They’re relying on smartphones for all their Internet access. Pew points out that 68% of Americans now have smartphones, about the same number who have broadband, and that the number who are “smartphone only” jumped from 8% to 13% in just two years.

This shift is especially pronounced among some demographics. Today, roughly one in five African-Americans have a smartphone but no broadband access at home, a ratio that has nearly doubled in two years. Likewise, only about two in five Americans who earn less than $20,000 a year have broadband at home, and 21% have only a smartphone for Internet access.

There are some troubling implications to having more people use only smartphones to get online, Pew argues. “The fact that more Americans have only a smartphone for online access at home has consequences for how people get information,” the report says.

Among them: It’s more likely that these consumers will have to contend with low data caps and pricey overage fees. And they’re at greater risk of losing service or being dropped by a carrier because they can’t afford the cost.

Smartphone-only users also face challenges doing some important things, Pew says: filling out online job applications on tiny phone screens, for instance, and watching videos for how-to and tutorial information. Video streaming also eats up data allotments more quickly, which can lead to these smartphone customers getting hit with overage fees.