03 February 2023
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.
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.
“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).