Expert Commentary

Mobile leapfrogging and digital divide policy

2013 paper from the New America Foundation on existing scholarship on mobile phone use in the developing world that critically examines the potential downsides.

The “digital divide” is a well-established concept that describes the differences of access to Internet technologies along class and racial lines. Although this gap is closing in the United States, new questions have arisen about a parallel divide in digital literacy and the ability to use the Internet effectively when seeking information. For example, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to spend large amounts of unfocused time on the Web and other media engaged in activities that may not be meaningful in terms of education or growth.

Around the developing world, different technological dynamics are at work. Because many countries do not have established broadband infrastructure and do not offer Internet access through traditional telephone services, many of the world’s poor are first gaining access to the Web through mobile phones. These phones frequently have usage plans with data limits and many are simple “feature phones” that lack touchscreens. Despite such technological limits, a 2012 report for the World Economic Forum notes that “mobile broadband growth is particularly accelerating in emerging countries, rising from 61% of all broadband connections in these regions in 2011 to 84% in 2016…. At this pace, emerging regions will surpass the developed world in terms of the number of mobile broadband connections in first half of 2013.”

This astonishing growth in mobile Internet access is often seen as a way for the developing world to catch up — scholars have called it “technology leapfrogging” — without having to build out expensive broadband networks. But this leap forward may come with missed opportunities and little-understood costs, as mobile-only access can offer a less robust Web experience and narrower possibilities for economic and social productivity. Organizations such as Wikipedia are attempting to find technical solutions — including texting articles to mobile-phone users — but this area is still in its infancy.

A 2013 paper from Jonathan Obar at Michigan State and the University of Toronto and Philip Napoli at Fordham University, “Mobile Leapfrogging and Digital Divide Policy,” highlights the developing world’s patterns of Internet access and examines the tradeoffs in them. Published by the New America Foundation, the study notes that “most research on mobile Internet access and usage to date has lacked comparative analyses of any type in which the characteristics or usage patterns of mobile platforms are assessed relative to PC-based platforms.” The scholars comprehensively survey relevant studies to provide a critical framework for evaluating the mobile “revolution” globally.

Key findings include:

  • Mobile devices are simply not able to store or process as much data as PCs, and this has a variety of consequences: “Mobile-ready Web sites often represent streamlined or watered down versions of the standard Web site. Thus, mobile users often find themselves with access to less information and less functionality than PC-based users when forced to rely on mobile-tailored Web sites.”
  • Because mobile devices are typically a much less open platform for Internet access — they often create a “walled garden” environment of apps and design a more constrained experience — the “opportunities, therefore, for mobile users to tap into the full economic potential of the Internet are much more limited. Consider, for instance, the dramatic entrepreneurial opportunities that have been facilitated by PC-based Internet access to develop and launch new online applications, platforms, and services that simply cannot be approximated if a user is limited to access via a mobile device.”
  •  “One usage study of mobile users in six countries concluded that information gathering was not a common task among mobile device users. Another usage study that examined the nature of mobile Internet users’ information-seeking activities found that PC-based users habitually access an average of 8.64 categories of Web sites, whereas mobile-based users habitually access an average of 3.58 categories of Web sites.”’
  • Performance of complex tasks and the production of large documents is rare among mobile users: “Perhaps the extent to which mobile devices are less conducive to substantive content creation and dissemination is contributing to the fact that more recent Internet adopters (who are predominantly mobile users) are producing less content than previous waves of Internet adopters. This would seem to be a fundamental behavioral distinction that, if accurate, should factor prominently into any discussions about the extent to which mobile devices are eradicating the digital divide and creating an even playing field for users to take full advantage of opportunities for social, economic, and political advancement afforded by the Internet.”
  • A revealing 2010 study, “After Access: Challenges Facing Mobile-only Internet Users in the Developing World,” found that “low-income residents of Cape Town, South Africa faced a variety of technical challenges, related to issues such as device set-up, security settings, menu navigation, and the dearth of mobile-ready online content in their native language.”

The scholars conclude that they are hoping to “inject into the policy conversation a more thorough understanding of how effective such efforts can really be in terms of providing mobile users with the same kind of opportunities to access, produce, and disseminate  information as PC users; and to raise a note of caution about the implications of abandoning efforts to promote PC diffusion in light of the potential for mobile leapfrogging. It is important to recognize the potentially significant compromises and shortcomings that come from a policy approach to the digital divide that emphasizes mobile access and largely abandons any emphasis on PC-based access, particularly in light of the fundamental requirement for technology leapfrogging discussed at the outset — that the leapfrogging technology be clearly superior to available alternatives.”

Tags: technology, telecommunications, Africa

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