John Mayo admits he should be more advanced when it comes to his own use of wireless technology, since it is the focus of much of his research. But in reality, he just recently learned about a “reading glasses” app from one of his older friends. Now he says zooming and magnifying text is one of the best uses for his smartphone.

In truth, though, such an app makes sense. Mayo and colleague Jeffrey Macher have learned that people over age 50 are some of the quickest to adopt new cellphone technology.

Mayo, professor of economics, business, and public policy, and Macher, associate professor of strategy, economics, and policy, started studying a decade’s worth of surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010. The surveys revealed about 30,000 households’ telephonic choices each year. The big surprise: The older population has transitioned to new tech with rapid speed. From 2003 to 2010, the number of households with people age 50 and older who abandoned landlines jumped from 1 percent to 14.5 percent.

“What is most striking is the substantial increase in households within this demographic segment that are wireless-only,” Macher says. “The pattern and pace that U.S. households over 50 years of age are cutting the cord is accelerating and mirrors younger demographic segments.”

Macher and Mayo have written about the trend among older Americans and what it could mean for them, for wireless companies, and for those who regulate the industry in an economic policy vignette titled The Wireless Revolution: Are the Elderly Keeping Up?, published by the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy in May.

The professors, directors of the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, housed in the McDonough School of Business, explain that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and some state agencies appear poised to discuss regulatory reform. The current regulatory structure, which is based on traditional landline service, is outdated. The researchers highlight the importance of considering the older set of users — a large and increasing percentage of the population — when developing new rules.

“The FCC and state regulatory commissions have the legislative charge to ensure that telecommunications pricing, services, and innovations act to enhance the well-being of all Americans,” Mayo says. “Under this charge, elderly Americans have always been a part of the population that has drawn special attention, as they may be especially vulnerable to exclusion if telecommunications services are not available and affordable.”

Mayo and Macher’s research reveals that four out of five over-50 households have wireless service as an alternative to landline service. So in large part, regulators do not need to delay a move forward for fear that older Americans are “irrevocably yoked to last century’s wire-line services,” Mayo adds.

Among the most vulnerable to being left behind are those living in poverty, but older American households have largely circumvented this vulnerability, with roughly 22 percent having eliminated their landlines in favor of wireless. Those that rely exclusively on landline service have dropped dramatically, from 58 percent in 2003 to 19 percent in 2010.
All of these data have implications for real public policy.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to be an academic in Washington, D.C., without considering the public policy dimensions of your research. Given the various political, economic, legal, and regulatory dimensions that play out here, an understanding and emphasis of issues that lie at the nexus of business and public policy comes naturally,” Macher says.
Rebecca Scherr

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