Inside Story

The stratifying internet

Internet connections have surged in the region, but cost has re-emerged as a constraint for many users

Julian Thomas 18 November 2016 1421 words

China and India are the two largest smartphone markets in the world. World Bank Photo Collection

The extraordinary growth of the mobile internet carries the promise of a more inclusive digital economy, accessible to everyone with a cheap smartphone. A low-cost, mobile internet could reconfigure the provision of health and education, open new economic opportunities, and expand cultural, civic and political engagement. But as we know, this is not yet the internet we have: great gaps remain in access and capability, and the benefits of connection are distributed very unevenly across physical and social space. Our region includes some of the least and some of the most connected countries on earth.

Findings from the Pew Research Center’s recent global survey of internet uptake and use underline these information inequalities, pointing to low levels of uptake in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, where 15 per cent of adults use the internet, with an entirely different situation in wealthy Pacific nations such as South Korea (94 per cent) and Australia (93 per cent). In China, rates of internet use are now at 65 per cent, according to Pew, very close to the global median of 67 per cent.

For the surging mobile internet, it’s a similar story, although a fast-moving one. China and India are the two largest smartphone markets in the world, dwarfing all others. Rates of smartphone ownership correlate closely with GDP, but we’re seeing very steep increases in ownership across all emerging economies. According to Pew’s figures, ownership in China increased by 21 per cent between 2013 and 2015; in Malaysia, the growth rate over the same period was 34 per cent. South Korea has the highest smartphone ownership rate of any country globally, with 88 per cent of respondents owning one.

These developments are prompting much new thinking about digital inequality and inclusion. While the digital divide is plainly not disappearing with the emergence of mobile, it is changing dramatically. Connecting with the work of other researchers and practitioners, Jonathan Donner’s 2015 book After Access raises a series of critical questions about the social ramifications of the shift towards mobile devices and connections. He argues that we need to work from an understanding of mobile services as and where they are – and while mobiles have great advantages over other technologies in affordability and accessibility, in the global South the services they offer are often far more limited than the mobile and fixed-line broadband services of the developed world. Cost considerations are vital: because of their historical links with phone services, mobile data is priced very differently from fixed-line internet, and metering bears directly on how the mobile internet is used and what it may be used for.

Survey data such as the Pew reports provide a necessary aggregate picture of a rapidly transforming global scene, but they shouldn’t obscure the social and geographical differences embedded in mobile networks, or be read as evidence of a trajectory that can be taken for granted. Access to the internet is essential, but it is what people can actually do with their access that determines any social or economic benefit.

In such a fluid environment, the research seems to point in several directions. The mobile internet, at least in its current form, is certainly improving lives in many ways, but it is also fragmenting and stratifying. We can’t blandly assume that it will offer the same possibilities for everyone; or that the trend lines mapped by Pew are all leading to the same point. Internet experiences and practices are increasingly diverse, and there are also likely to be great differences in their transformative potential, depending on who and where you are. Other kinds of socio-economic metrics may be needed to grasp the differences.

The problems that Donner alerts us to are not merely those of emerging economies and the developing world: the dynamic of mobility, rapid growth and stratification is at work everywhere, although how it plays out will vary dramatically in different national contexts. Australia is a good example. A country with high levels of internet use, it appears near the top of Pew’s country rankings for smartphone uptake, but nevertheless exhibits signs of the stratifying impact of mobile. I’ve recently worked with a group of researchers on preparing a new index of digital inclusion that aims to provide a useful, up-to-date measure of uptake and use in the light of the rapid growth of mobile, and its particular cost structures, constraints and possibilities. This project has underlined for me the new problems presented by mobile’s social dynamic, and the need to provide tools that can assist research and practical interventions.

We used data from interviews conducted with 50,000 households across the country since 2013 in order to capture regional variations, and to track changes over time. We took “digital inclusion” to mean not only access, but also the skills, attitudes and capabilities of users, and the affordability of the service.

Our work shows some clear trends we expected to see, and one we didn’t. The story about access is positive, with our measures of where and how often people access the internet, the range of devices they use, and the amount of data they have available all rising steadily over the last three years. All these indicators show that Australians right across the country are spending more time online and using more devices for more purposes. That reflects, above all, the smartphone’s growing ubiquity in everyday life – a worldwide trend. It also reflects the changing content of online media and the increasing importance of video, not only for entertainment, but also for information, education, and many other everyday purposes. “Digital ability” – skills, confidence and activity online – is also growing, although unevenly across different regions and different social groups.

When we look at affordability, however, our measure of inclusion has declined in Australia over the last three years. Although we know that the price of data has fallen steadily and significantly, people are using much more of it. So internet use has become relatively more expensive as a proportion of household incomes. This is the result of how we pay for mobile data, not only in Australia but also in most markets. The mobile internet bears the legacy of mobile telephony, including its metered pricing model; there are many variations, but the general principle is that instead of paying a flat access fee, we pay for the amount of data we use.

So increasing mobile data charges are the other side of the explosive internet growth story. Spending more on the net may not be a major problem for people with middle-class incomes, and it doesn’t mean the internet is necessarily unaffordable. But the trend does have serious implications for low-income internet users. The issue for them is that the internet is increasingly embedded not only in everyday social life but also in government and community services, education and labour-market services.

No exactly comparable data exist for other Asia-Pacific countries. But other measures of affordability and digital capability suggest that these are major obstacles, subject to a high level of regional variability. A 2016 report by GSMA, a mobile industry group, highlights the scale of the overall problem: even with optimistic projections of mobile take-up rates, GSMA estimates that more than 35 per cent of the population of the Asia-Pacific region will still lack internet access by the end of the decade. Affordability and the lack of digital skills were identified as two of the three most significant barriers to mobile internet use (the other was a lack of local, relevant content).

In Indonesia, 46 per cent of respondents identified affordability as a barrier; in Vietnam and India the figures were 23 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. In China, only 11 per cent of non–internet users identified affordability as a barrier, but 89 per cent cited a lack of digital literacy and skills. In India, the lack of locally relevant content was a much more significant barrier, with this reason cited by 80 per cent of non-users, compared with 30 per cent in China.

All this points to the scale of the future challenge for digital inclusion. Twenty years ago, the costs of not being connected to the internet were small. They are now substantial. As crucial services and knowledge resources increasingly move online, the risk of a stratifying internet is that the benefits of connection are concentrated among those who are already well-placed. Digital exclusion then becomes an increasingly serious problem for those who depend on support and services most. •