Lightening the load to narrow the digital divide

Published online 13 January 2023

Blocking non-essential webpage content for users of low-end mobile phones could help narrow the digital divide between developed and developing countries.

Tim Reid

© Royalty-Free/Corbis
Many people in developing countries are losing out on the benefits of the internet because of their reliance on limited bandwidth and low-end mobile phones. 

To explore the extent of this digital divide, Yasir Zaki at New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE,  and co-workers, examined mobile phone browsing experiences and data costs in 56 cities around the globe. The team also designed Lite-Web, a tool that blocks non-essential webpage content to enhance website loading times. 

“The web was originally created with the goal of net neutrality – that all internet traffic should be treated equally,” says Zaki. “However, many people depend solely on low-end mobile phones, and the costs of mobile data vary widely. Tackling these inequalities is critical.” 

The team recruited undergraduate students from developing and developed regions who attend university in Abu Dhabi. They gave each student the same model of low-end mobile phone and asked them to buy an affordable sim-only deal when they returned home for winter break. The students then activated software instructing each phone to automatically complete an identical task: accessing the same top 100 websites via the same web browser at the same local time. 

The results showed significant differences in browsing experience – pages took up to four times longer to load in some places, and the cost per gigabyte of data varied greatly from US$ 0.08 to as much as US$ 43. 

“Those with poorer connection quality pay more, not less, than their counterparts, but we don’t yet understand why,” says Zaki. 

The team highlight the increased use of Javascript elements on websites as a major factor influencing the websites’ loading times. 

“Web developers use Javascript to perform numerous tasks that are not essential to the user experience,” says Zaki. “Such tasks have a negligible impact on high-end mobile users, but low-end mobiles lack the processing power to handle them.”

Zaki’s team developed Lite-Web to filter out non-essential Javascript elements and speed up the page load times. They trialled it at two high schools in the remote Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, with notoriously poor internet coverage. The average time spent loading 100 webpages was reduced from 61 to 23 seconds using Lite-Web, without affecting webpage functionality or appearance.

“Using our solution, the browsing experience of a villager in Pakistan approaches that of a Dubai resident with a high-end device and fast internet,” says Zaki. 

“This study significantly advances our understanding of the digital divide and highlights the value of ‘development-engineering’ as a partial solution,” says Jonas Hjort, professor of economics at University College London, UK,  who was not involved in the study. “Workarounds like Lite-Web hold considerable promise.”


Chaqfeh, M. et al. Towards a world wide web without digital inequality. PNAS 120, e2212649120 (2023).