Blog | November 21, 2017 | Tony Roberts

Mobile internet use in the Philippines is growing rapidly, but so are digital inequalities. Our new research shows that far from creating equality of access to information, the use of mobile and internet technologies is creating new class divisions in technology access and new forms of inequality. We suggest some ‘analogue complements’ to ensure that digital development projects don’t unintentionally widen existing social inequality.

The Philippines is famous as the text message and social media capital of Asia and has the highest growth rate in smartphone ownership in the region. There are more mobile phone registrations than people in the country. So on the surface it seemed like the perfect place to launch new digital governance initiatives and to research digital governance technologies.

What we found poured cold water on this techno-optimism.

Once we dug under the surface we found that inequality of use was structured along familiar lines of gender, ethnicity and class. In a previous blog I shared what we learnt about the main barriers to technology access in the Philippines. In that blog I focused on how we used the 5 A’s of Technology Access to understand some of the main constraints on technology access being experienced by Filipinos. In this blog I want to share what we learnt about new classes of mobile ownership and connectivities.

The research focused on participatory governance technologies was part of the Making All Voices Count process. We were looking specifically at the extent to which citizens were able to access e-Government information and services, as well as be active players in online ‘participatory governance’ initiatives using internet-connected mobile phones or computers.

We ran five focus groups and conducted multiple interviews in three locations: in the capital city Manila, in Puerta Princess on the island province of Palawan, and in a remote village of Batak indigenous people. In total we spoke to 76 people ranging from donors and government officials to civil society representatives and to citizens engaged in governance activities in the areas of participatory budgeting, and the public governance of schools and extractive industries.

Class divides

The “connected by default” experience of metropolitan professionals in Manila was radically different from the “disconnected by default” experience of the rural indigenous Batak community, and we identified other classes of connectivity in between.

The upper class of technology access that we saw in the Philippines were those individuals who enjoy Wi-Fi access at home and in their offices and are fortunate enough to own the latest smartphones with post-paid monthly mobile contracts that come with several gigabytes of mobile data per month.

The middle class of mobile and internet access are those that own a lower range smartphone and a post-paid contract with relatively small mobile data allowance, and less Wi-Fi access. They have the ability to make almost unlimited voice and text communications but need to be frugal with their mobile data and use it primarily for WhatsApp and other instant messaging app rather than for surfing the web.

The working class of digital technology access were those Filipinos who have basic mobile phones on pre-paid contracts and who predominantly use SMS to communicate as this is relatively inexpensive to buy. Without access to Wi-Fi at home or work their data access is primarily confined to Facebook Basics.

The under class of technology access in the Philippines is typified by the indigenous people that we visited - the majority of whom own no mobile phone. Those who did own basic phones struggled to keep them charged with power and in credit. They had to hike over eleven bridges to the nearest highway to obtain a cell phone signal and they mainly received incoming rather than making outgoing calls.

Class of technology access Employment Device Connectivity Experience
Upper class
Independently wealthy or
urban salaried professional
Latest smartphone ·   Post-paid monthly mobile contracts with maximum ­­­­­­gigabit/month data; unlimited calls and texts

·   Wi-Fi at home and at work

·   Connected by default to all the fastest available services

·   Uses Internet extensively

·   Not frugal

Middle class
civil servant, shopkeeper
Previous generation of smartphone ·   Post-paid mid-range monthly package of calls and text with limited data

·   Wi-Fi at work and coffee shops, but not at home

·   Always able to call and text

·   Uses web mainly on Wi-Fi

·   Uses mobile data mainly for instant messaging

·   Frugal with mobile data

Working class
Manual worker Feature phone with touchscreen and Internet capability ·   Pre-paid call credit

·   Unlimited texts

·   Limited data

·   No Wi-Fi access

·   Text rather than voice calls

·   Frugal with data (instant messaging only)

·   Internet limited to Facebook and free basics

Under class
Unpaid work, unemployed, underemployed, informal work No phone or basic phone, with a non-touchscreen and physical keyboard ·   Pre-paid, but often has no credit

·   Phone often not charged

·   No data

·   No Wi-Fi access

·   Unconnected by default

·   Frugal with voice calls – mainly passive recipient of calls and texts


These categories are schematic; further research is necessary to test them with larger samples and in other locations. The categories build on Professor Jack Qui’s work on Working Class Technologies in China and Indra De Lanerolle’s findings about fragile connectivities in South Africa in Izolo: Mobile Diaries of the Less Connected. The categories illustrate the finding that mobile penetration is not delivering a new level playing field but rather fuelling the formation of new class divisions and new digital inequalities. These classes of technology reflect existing socio-economic classes and levels of income and potentially exacerbate them.

In popular and dominant narratives of development, increases in mobile phone ownership and internet use are signifiers of progress. The Sustainable Development Goals use mobile phone registrations and internet use as proxy indicators for international development. Statistics about levels of smartphone ownership and social media use in the Philippines attracted us to carry out our research there in the first place. However we quickly learned that these binary indicators disguise more than they reveal. Our study provides evidence that increases in mobile ownership can occur alongside widening technological and social inequalities. The people who were most able to make their voices heard on participatory governance platforms were ‘the usual suspects’: largely urban, middle-class and university-educated.

What we learned in the Philippines was that development cannot be understood in binary terms of how many people are connected or not connected. It is possible to connect the unconnected at the same time as increasing inequality. Various different classes of connectivity reflect existing patterns of existing privilege and disadvantage - and reproduce them.

Technology is changing rapidly, and uptake is expanding, but digital divides and economic inequalities are growing at the same time. The most disadvantaged remain unconnected whilst the already privileged race further and further ahead. It is those with the most disposable income, digital literacy and social capital that are first to own and make effective use of each new generation of technology. Those with least technology access experience new disadvantages.

This does not mean that disadvantaged people are not active in appropriating technology to their advantage wherever possible – they are. Nor does this mean that development initiatives should not use digital technologies – they should. What it does mean is that digital development initiatives wishing to avoid unconsciously excluding those with lower-class device ownership or connectivity must conduct effective market research and on the basis of the research then design for equity.

Achieving this requires that we conduct careful analysis about existing device ownership, levels of digital literacy and classes of connectivity - prior to and during our digital development initiatives - to avoid unintended exclusions. Such analysis will enable digital projects to add appropriate ‘analogue complements’ such as training and capacity-building to ensure that we ‘leave no one behind’.

About the author

Tony Roberts is a Research Fellow in the Digital Technologies Cluster at IDS. You can contact him by email at, or follow him on Twitter @phat_controller