Sharing mobile phones in developing countries: Implications for the digital divide

M.J. James

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


Current estimates of the digital divide in mobile phones between rich and poor countries are based on the ethnocentric assumption that in both regions the use of these products takes place through individual ownership. But while this assumption may be largely true in the former countries, it does not match the circumstances in the latter regions where a considerable amount of sharing is shown to take place (partly for cultural reasons). Using the available survey evidence and a simple arithmetic framework, I show that when sharing is taken into account, the divide entirely ceases to exist or is greatly reduced (though there are one or two exceptions to this general pattern). Improvements in data collection practice will tend, as I see it, to strengthen rather than cast doubt upon this novel finding. If so, questions arise as to the need for a gap analysis per se.

As defined by most international organizations, the digital divide in mobile phones is the ratio of subscribers in developed countries to subscribers in developing countries (I use the terms owners and subscribers synonymously1). This definition however assumes that the only way in which benefits accrue to individuals is by individual ownership of mobile phones.2 And while this may make sense in developed countries where ownership is indeed widespread, it does not make much sense in poor countries where benefits from use are more heavily derived by sharing of the technology. The problem here is created by the illegitimate transposition of an assumption from one set of circumstances to a highly different environment, a phenomenon described, among others, by Myrdal [5]. My purpose below is to examine the implications of this assumption for the digital divide in mobile phones between rich and poor countries. In particular, I will argue that current measures of this divide are quite heavily overstated, in some cases to the point where the divide disappears altogether. For this purpose I will rely mainly on household survey data that pertains to the middle of the past decade. The first part of the paper deals with the context of the digital divide and a description of the major socio-economic effects of mobile phones. The second part is concerned with the concepts and measures of sharing while the final part is concerned with empirical evidence. Both parts 2 and 3 are based on a distinction between two major types of sharing behavior. And both parts use a measure of mobile phones per 100 inhabitants.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)729-735
JournalTechnological Forecasting and Social Change
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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