Imagine something that you could never live without.
For almost a third of Americans, that item is their mobile phone. According to a recent Pew Charitable Trust study, a mobile phone is more than just a communication tool; it’s a direct connection to health information, news, online banking and other services for many Americans. More and more, consumers rely on their smartphones to help them navigate everyday life. Smartphones are particularly important as an accessible and affordable alternative Internet portal for the 19 million Americans who do not have access to broadband Internet.
But a battle at a government agency, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), has the potential to increase the cost of smartphones, putting further strain on certain segments of the U.S. population who are already struggling to get by. Apple is seeking an over-reaching injunction that would bar various smartphones made by Samsung—sold by different carriers and at varying price points, from being imported to the U.S. If granted, it will ultimately lead to higher prices and less consumer choice.
Unfortunately, this would deny affordable access to the Internet for many people who rely on their mobile phones to pay bills or job-hunt. To ensure the cost of smartphones stays down, companies should compete in the marketplace over products and innovations, not in courtrooms.
This issue came about because Apple is claiming monopoly over any rounded rectangular touchscreen device. But almost all smartphones are shaped this way, and for good reason—it’s functional. If Apple gets its way, it may try to ban all non-Apple smartphones with rounded corners from entering the United States. This means a higher price tag on mobile phones, because competition won’t exist to drive prices down.
While the ITC’s ruling will have an immediate impact on all of our pockets, it will also widen the digital divide between the haves and have-nots. As more aspects of daily life move online, and as offline alternatives disappear, the range of choices and services available to people without broadband Internet access narrows.
Preserving access to smartphones is especially important in preventing some underserved communities from falling farther behind the digital “haves.” Samsung and other manufacturers of smartphones offer a broad choice of mobile phones at different price points and provide service to rural and prepaid markets, many of which are not serviced by broadband providers.
The vast majority of the primary U.S. market, adults between 18-54, already own smartphones, according to a recent study. However, it’s predicted that the next 100 million smartphone users will include those with lower incomes who are more likely to buy cheaper smartphones.4 With this in mind, it seems banning smartphones that come in broader price ranges could further broaden the digital divide.
While it will be to all smartphone users’ detriment if Apple wins its overbearing case, the biggest burden will be placed on those who can least afford to pay higher prices. That’s inequality at its best.
About The Author: Natalie Blanning Weber is the executive director of Consumer Alliance for A Strong Economy, a statewide non-partisan organization which seeks to educate and inform consumers about state and federal public policy issues. For more information, please visit: www.consumeralliance.org