1/4 of smartphone users rely on their device for Internet access

For one-quarter of smartphone users, their handset is the primary way they access the Internet, according to new data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It’s a sign of the growing dependence on smartphones and also shows that for a sizable chunk of users, it’s out of necessity because they don’t have a home broadband connection.

Among smartphone users, 87 percent said they used the Internet or email on their device including 68 percent who say they do it on a daily basis. Twenty-five percent said they go online primarily with their phones rather than on a computer. That’s in part because one-third of these respondents come from cell-only households that don’t have home computers. This is particularly true among smartphone owners under the age of 30, non-white smartphone users, and smartphone owners with relatively low income and education levels.

The Pew study also found that 35 percent of American adults have a smartphone, with smartphone adoption strongest among richer households as well as with younger users. Almost six in 10 (59 percent) smartphone users come from households with $75,000 or more in income, while 58 percent of American cell phone owners between the ages of 25 and 34 own a smartphone, and 48 percent of people ages 18-24 have a smartphone. Among African-Americans and Latinos, 44 percent own a smartphone. Android (s goog) was particularly popular among African-Americans, with 26 percent of all cell phone owners in this group using an Android device, far ahead of whites and Latinos. Overall, Android led the way with 15 percent of all cell phones owners, followed by the iPhone (s aapl) and BlackBerry (s rimm) at 10 percent each. The Pew results are based on a national telephone survey of 2,277 adults conducted between April 26 and May 22, 2011.

The survey results are interesting for a couple of reasons. Some imagine the smartphone market as if it were solely a tech geek or early adopter phenomenon that is spilling over now to middle class mainstream users. But for many users, who sometimes don’t have the income for pricier smartphones and data plans, they’re still turning to the devices because it’s their primary link to the Internet. And the devices are extremely popular with minority groups who see a lot of value in smartphones. It’s a big opportunity I’m not sure marketers completely understand: The smartphone is bridging the digital divide for some communities, helping them leap ahead. Cheaper pricing and more affordable data plans can help encourage this trend.

The other interesting thing is that with so many people turning to the Internet from their smartphones, websites should consider upping their mobile game. Many sites are still oriented toward desktop users and assume that consumers have larger screens and technology like Flash (s adbe) to navigate through content. But I believe there are missed opportunities in websites that aren’t optimized for mobile, which can lose customers and possible transactions because they’re not geared for mobile users with more limited screen real estate. Google, for example, recently started offering free mobile Google Sites templates to businesses interested in building out their mobile presence. Google said it found that 61 percent of users are unlikely to return to a mobile site they had trouble accessing from their phone, and 40 percent go to a competitor’s site. Getting up-to-speed on mobile is becoming less of an option and more of an imperative for companies trying to do business on the web.

With so many people turning to smartphones and many of them primarily using them for Internet access, these are just some of the implications that need to be considered. We’re on our way toward a smartphone majority soon, but it’s unfolding in interesting ways that can provide some new opportunities for those paying attention.