By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A09
Lashay Johnson and Simon Casselle walk along the U Street corridor with their cellphones outstretched like urban compasses guiding their way. Johnson stares at MapQuest on her Blackberry Tour, and Casselle is looking at a list of local businesses served up on his LG Chocolate.
They are summer interns doing old-fashioned door-to-door ad sales for a new online magazine. And they are using their cellphones as street map, Yellow Pages and events guide to the neighborhood. The two college students are also among a fast-growing population of cellphone users -- led by minorities -- who are taking advantage of more powerful devices, an explosion of applications and cheaper access to the Web.
Six out of 10 African Americans and Hispanics use their cellphones to get onto the Internet, a greater portion than for the overall adult population, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this week.
Experts say the reasons for the high adoption rates are numerous. Ethnic minorities are often first-adopters of new technology. Cities such as Washington have become giant hot spots, with free Wi-Fi connections in public libraries, community centers, bookstores and coffee shops. And a phone with a flat-rate data plan -- while still expensive for many -- is more affordable than a $1,000 computer and monthly broadband connections of more than $50 a month.
"There is a value proposition with a single device with a single payment plan that allows you to make phone calls, connect with friends with text messaging and enter into a broader online world," said Aaron Smith, author of the Pew Internet & American Life Project report.
And although wireless Internet connections have their limitations, cellphones and laptops are recasting the access issue for minority and low-income communities that have been disproportionately left behind as Facebook, Wikipedia and Skype become fixtures in homes and at businesses.
The Obama administration has made broadband access a cornerstone of education, health and energy-related policy objectives. And the Federal Communications Commission has focused on getting 100 million homes connected to 10 megabit-per-second data service in the next decade. The administration recently signed off on an FCC proposal to free up airwaves over the next five years for robust networks that can handle a new generation of devices such as the iPad and the HTC EVO that blur the line between computer and cellphone.
"Wireless devices are a great gateway online for people who don't have other forms, but it's not a replacement for wire-line broadband," said Matt Wood, an associate director at the public interest group the Media Access Project. "IPads and netbooks aside, it's still hard to find a word processing application to create a résumé or do your homework on a cellphone, so it's important to understand that this is not a true substitute for a desktop and wireless service."
Johnson, a District native and sophomore at Norfolk State University, said her cellphone is useful only to a point. She helped her older brother find directions to Montgomery College on her Blackberry last week, but she used her desktop computer and high-speed Internet connection at college and at her family's home to find her summer internship.
"There are different purposes for cellphones and computers, and I still feel like I need both," Johnson, 20, said.
While Johnson has the choice, 18 percent of African Americans access the Web only through cellphones and wireless-connected laptops, compared with 10 percent of whites, according to Pew. And the number of African Americans who own a laptop rose 50 percent in the past year, the report said. Eighty-seven percent of African Americans own a cellphone, compared with 80 percent of whites.
For those who live in cities, devices that depend on wireless connections have become a more affordable and convenient onramp for Web service.
In the District, there are 232 hot spots. Last month, AT&T launched free Wi-Fi service in New York's Times Square. Last week, Starbucks began offering free hot spots at every retail location in the United States.
To a degree, that's helped Abraham Guardado, 16. He and his two brothers struggle to get enough time on computers at their neighborhood library to do homework and catch up with friends on Facebook. There are two iPods in their downtown Washington home, and they are able to perform basic Internet functions on those devices, thanks to a neighbor who has lent a wireless password for the brothers to get online. Guardado tracked down directions to a housecleaning client for his mother recently. He checks e-mail and found information for a research paper on NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting conviction through searches on his Safari browser.
But he wasn't able to watch a video of the statement Vick made before going to prison. And he had to go through many pages of search results, waiting patiently for each page to load on his device.
"It's way cheaper than a computer, that's for sure," he said. "But you also have to have a lot more patience."