More people than ever have smartphones, but large divides in access persist across 11 emerging economies


Written by Courtney Johnson

April 10, 2019

As smartphone access increases in the emerging and developing world, more people are going online for the first time. This new access has brought with it a wealth of economic and educational opportunities. Mobile internet access has expanded prospects for local small-business owners and increased migrant workers’ ability to share remittances with those back home. Moreover it has opened up new channels for educational attainment. Additionally the United Nations Development Programme has identified increasing mobile access as an important means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, an estimated third of the world’s population lacks mobile access. Access is not distributed equally among the population. For example, older people, those with less education and lower income are often more likely to lack smartphone access. What’s more, women trail men in some countries.

Mobile connectivity

Pew Research Center has long studied how people around the world use mobile technology. A recent Center survey of 11 emerging economies worldwide examined the topic in depth, exploring what kinds of mobile devices people have access to and how they’re using these devices. The survey also asked people about the costs and benefits – both personal and societal – that they associate with these new technologies.

The survey’s findings show that mobile phones have become nearly ubiquitous in these countries. The percentage of adults who own or share a mobile phone ranges from a low of 80% in the Philippines to a high of 98% in Vietnam. However, deep demographic divides in mobile phone use persist. Younger people, those with a secondary education or more, and higher earners are more likely to have a mobile device.

Disparities in smartphone usage

In addition, not all mobile phone access is equal. In many of the countries surveyed, sizeable shares of adults only own basic phones that can make calls or send texts or feature phones that often have very limited internet connectivity and don’t support apps. Smartphones, which offer the most features and greatest connectivity, remain elusive for many adults. Of the countries surveyed, smartphone usage is lowest in India (32%) and Kenya (36%). This is because adults in these countries are more likely to have basic phones. Smartphone usage is highest in the Middle Eastern countries of Lebanon (86%) and Jordan (85%).

Educational gaps in smartphone usage

The survey also finds that educational gaps in smartphone usage are sizeable. In each of the 11 countries surveyed, a majority of adults with a secondary education or more either own or share a smartphone. This is true even in countries like India and Kenya, where a minority of the overall population has a smartphone. Depending on the country, people with less than a secondary education are 17 to 41 percentage points less likely than their more-educated counterparts to use a smartphone. These gaps are not just a function of income.  In every country, the gaps in smartphone use between more- and less-educated people are larger than the gaps between higher and lower earners.

Furthermore, in every country surveyed, smartphone users with less education are far less likely to have a working desktop, laptop or tablet computer in their home, relative to smartphone owners with more education. These gaps range from 9 percentage points in India to 45 points in Lebanon. This illustrates the extent to which less-educated smartphone users are more likely to be reliant on their smartphones as their primary source of internet access. Previous Pew Research Center surveys conducted in other developed and emerging economies also have observed educational gaps in usage.

Benefits in smartphone usage

But regardless of their education level, people who have smartphones tend to report that they enjoy similar benefits from their devices. In every country, majorities of both more- and less-educated smartphone users say their phones help them obtain news and information about important issues. Nevertheless smartphone owners with more education report this at higher rates. Large majorities of both groups also say their smartphones help them stay in touch with people who live far away. Similar shares of more- and less-educated smartphone users also say their phone has helped them earn a living. As a result, this illustrates that the economic benefits of mobile phones can be felt at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

In India, for example, 69% of smartphone users with less than a secondary education say their phone has helped them earn a living. This statistic is early identical to the share of more-educated users (67%) who say the same. Smartphone users, regardless of education level, are also similarly likely to say the increasing use of mobile phones has positively influenced education and the economy in their country more broadly.

Mobile phones are in the hands of more people than ever, but significant divides in access persist. This is particularly true for smartphones, which have the most potential to be transformative technologies for people living in emerging economies.

Courtney Johnson is a research associate at Pew Research Center who has written extensively on the Center’s international surveys, and currently studies public attitudes on science and health issues. She holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Washington. Courtney’s blog post follows a seminar given by Laura Silver of Pew Research Center on mobile connectivity in emerging economies.