Can Improvements to Mobile Internet Service Help Reduce Digital Inequality? An Empirical Analysis of Education and Overall Data Consumption

Publication Date



Quality internet access is critical to participating in contemporary society. Unfortunately, many households – particularly those of low socioeconomic status and/or those in rural areas – do not have quality internet access. Some have no access, while others are reliant on their mobile data plans for internet access, i.e., they are “smartphone dependent”. This generates inequality in internet access and use. Given the smartphone dependence of many disadvantaged households, we explore whether improvements to mobile internet service can help reduce digital inequality. We focus on a specific improvement: access to unlimited mobile data. For access to unlimited data to help reduce digital inequality, it must generate larger data consumption increases for disadvantaged households than for advantaged ones, including for data likely to enhance welfare such as online education content. It is not obvious that this will be the case. Accordingly, we use detailed subscriber-level data from a major telecommunications company to examine changes in the consumption of education and other content after subscribers switch to unlimited mobile data plans. We find that although all subscribers increase their consumption, the increases are significantly larger for disadvantaged subscribers, both for overall content and for education content. This is an important finding, given that identifying programs that generate disproportionate data consumption increases for disadvantaged households – including for education and other “enhancing” content – is a necessary step for reducing digital inequality.

Document Type



Digital inequality, Smartphone dependence, Mobile internet, Difference-in-differences, Data caps


Business Administration, Management, and Operations




SMU Cox: IT & Operations Management (Topic)