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Pew Study Finds Rising Tide of Wireless Internet

It's no secret that smartphones are all the rage or that Americans are fond of surfing the Web on the go. But a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveals just how quickly the wireless Internet is catching on.

On an average day, 19 percent of the survey respondents told Pew that they access the Internet with a mobile device. While that mark is obviously a decided minority, it represents a 73 percent increase since December of 2007, when Pew conducted a similar study.

Pew's survey found that 32 percent of Americans have hopped online via a cell phone or smartphone, a one-third increase from December of 2007.

Overall, 56 percent of American adults said they have accessed the Internet on a wireless network with devices such as phones, laptops or portable music players.

"Mobile access strengthens the three pillars of online engagement: connecting with others, satisfying information queries, and sharing content with others," Pew Associate Director and study author John Horrigan said in a statement. "With access in their pockets, many Americans are 'on the fly' consumers and producers of digital information."

Americans' increasing reliance on mobile computing is not lost on Web firms, which are making big bets on wireless apps and services in the expectation of a thriving ad business. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, for instance, has said that he expects revenue from mobile ads to eclipse the company's PC business in the coming years.

Telecom providers are also investing heavily in mobile data networks. The nation's two largest wireless carriers, Verizon Wireless and AT&T (NYSE: T), spent more than $15 billion to acquire spectrum in a government auction last March as they look ahead to 4G wireless networks.

Predictably, laptops are the most common on-ramp to the wireless Web, used by 39 percent of American adults. Mobile phones checked in at No. 2, Pew said.

But Americans have a growing constellation of devices by which to access the mobile Internet, such as Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPod or game consoles like Sony's PSP. Then there is the nascent emergence of e-book readers, such as Amazon's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Kindle. Pew found that just 2 percent of Americans own an e-book reader, and only 1 percent said they had used the devices to connect to the Internet.

Nevertheless, Amazon's success with the Kindle has given the long dormant e-book market a shot in the arm, most recently seen in Barnes & Noble's (NYSE: BKS) announcement that it plans to bring an e-book reader to market by 2010.

Pew also looked at demographics, finding that African Americans are the heaviest users of the wireless Internet. Of that segment, nearly half said they had accessed the Internet through a wireless network, and 29 percent said they did so on a typical day. Both of those figures were about 50 percent higher than the national averages.

"The notion of a digital divide for African Americans has some resonance when thinking about the wireline Internet," Horrigan said. "But when you introduce the mobile Internet, the picture changes and African Americans are the pace setters."