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The Digital Divide is Not Binary: The Five A’s of Technology Access – Your Weekend Long Reads

By Wayan Vota on February 16, 2019

5 As of Technology Access

Although more than four billion people now have some kind of Internet access, almost the same number remains without access worldwide. Smartphone sales and the rate of growth in Internet connections are now slowing. Women are over‐represented amongst those being left behind.

Research is now showing that many of the people who are counted as connected in official statistics actually experience fragile, intermittent, and unaffordable connections. This makes their meaningful inclusion in digital governance initiatives often impossible. Understanding more about the true nature of the unconnected, the least connected, and the poorly connected is essential for those wishing to make digital citizenship inclusive of disadvantaged communities.

Digital Access is Not Binary

The 5’A’s of Technology Access in the Philippines research report focuses in on civic tech experiences in the Philippines and shows that digital access is not binary. The Philippines was selected as the focus for this research as it has relatively high levels of mobile and Internet adoption and a unique history of citizen use of mobile applications to challenge governance failings, notably in the People’s Power 2 popular mobilisations that peacefully ended the rule of President Estrada in 2001.

The initial literature review and desk‐based interviews identified three gaps in existing knowledge that are addressed in this paper.

  • First, existing literature emphasised a binary distinction between connected and unconnected citizens, which is insufficient for a comprehensive understanding of barriers to digital citizenship.
  • Second, most existing research failed to capture the perspective of non‐users and the least connected to understand the particular barriers to participation that they experience.
  • Third, the literature evidenced a lack of a structured approach for analysing technology access.

To address these gaps, we conducted interviews and focus groups with non‐users and least‐connected Filipinos and we adopted and revised the ‘5’A’s of Technology Access. The 5’A’s provided a conceptual structure for analysing the barriers to technology access experienced by non‐users and least‐connected citizens. This helped to “decentre” the technology itself and surface the social and economic factors shaping civic tech participation.

The study enabled us to move away from a binary understanding of connectivity and to produce a new model of the emerging classes of technology access existing in the Philippines. The main research questions addressed were:

  • Who participates in digital governance in the Philippines and who remains excluded?
  • What barriers to participation exist in terms of technical issues, social norms, and structural power relations?
  • What recommendations would contribute to enhanced development outcomes?

In practice, projects that provide technology “solutions” quickly encounter nontechnical obstacles including gendered social norms or unequal power relationships. The 5’A’s are a simple heuristic and analytical device that guides participants through a structured five‐stage reflection about potential barriers to inclusive technology access.

The 5’A’s help problematise the unconnected/connected binary by breaking access down into five constituent elements of: availability, affordability, awareness, ability, and agency.

The 5’A’s of Technology Access

Structuring analysis around these five dimensions helps to decentre the technology and to highlight the social and political factors that limit technology access. The dimensions of the 5’A’s can be thought of as five concentric circles as illustrated above.


The first dimension of the 5’A’s is a consideration of to whom a particular technology is (un)available. In most countries, there are remote locations in which cellular phone or broadband Internet coverage is unavailable.

For people living on remote islands, the Internet may simply not be available. For millions of other Filipinos, the question of availability is less binary. Some areas may have intermittent and unreliable coverage, some areas may have only voice coverage but lack data coverage.

Connectivity speeds vary enormously. Levels of connectivity often reflect pre‐existing geographical and economic exclusions. Women and indigenous ethnic groups are over‐represented in rural communities where connectivity is not available.

Availability is not only about availability of connectivity, it is also about availability of relevant content in local languages and the availability of adaptive and assistive technologies for people with disabilities. Many indigenous languages are not available as screen interfaces for digital citizenship applications or platforms. People living with disabilities, such as those who are blind or visually impaired, may find that digital

governance initiatives are unavailable to them. In a world where citizenship is increasingly mediated online, these new digital exclusions often amplify the effect of existing prejudices and unequal power relationships along familiar lines of ethnicity/language group, disability, and gender.


Even if technology access is available for some people, it may not be affordable. The Philippines has the most expensive and slowest Internet in Southeast Asia. These high costs mean that connectivity is out of reach for many Filipinos on low incomes.

Like availability, affordability is not a binary issue. A person may be able to purchase a limited amount of data connectivity on payday but need to use it frugally. De Lanerolle et al (2017) have documented patterns of “fragile connectivities” and “frugal practices” in South Africa.

  • Frugal practices include owning multiple SIM cards to switch between free services offered at different times on different networks and conserving data for instant messaging rather than web‐
  • Faith (2018) has shown how the costs of keeping mobile phones repaired, charged with power, and loaded with call and data credit create structural barriers to use for working class women.
  • Research shows that middle‐class men are over‐represented on digital governance platforms with the result that already privileged voices are further amplified (Rambul, 2015).


Where connectivity is both available and affordable, a lack of awareness often contributes to levels of non‐use of certain technologies. A large number of digital governance initiatives have been launched in the Philippines, but levels of public awareness about them remain low, reducing their uptake levels.

Awareness is not a binary issue, as it refers not simply to knowledge that a service exists, but also to levels of awareness about its functions and applications as well as critical awareness of the extent to which it is relevant to a person’s life priorities and concerns.

Digital development projects that do not budget sufficient funds and expertise for marketing and awareness‐raising will often struggle to achieve scale.


Even when availability, affordability, and awareness are high, a person’s ability to make effective use of a technology can be limited by a lack of digital literacy, skills, or knowledge.

It is often easier to secure one‐off funding for civic tech prototyping and pilots than it is for user training and critical thinking about applications, the need for which is often ongoing and expensive. This is especially important where initiatives wish to be inclusive of those already marginalised by low levels of educational access and accomplishment.

As gender norms in many countries result in the under‐representation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, gender‐aware programming may need to pay particular attention to the training needs of women and girls.


The term ‘agency’ refers to the extent to which a person’s feels able to act in the world to bring about change or what a person is able to do in line with their conception of the good. Amartya Sen (1999: 281) argued that development initiatives must be built on “the idea of the public as an active participant in change, rather than as a passive and docile recipient of instructions or of dispensed assistance.”

The problem that Sen highlights is that some people who experience persistent deprivation suppress their aspirations and revise their expectations downwards resulting in a lack of aspiration or appetite for change. Socially constructed norms and values about gender, ethnicity, and caste/class are often internalised and negatively affect people’s sense of self‐efficacy and agency for change.

Even for those marginalised people who experience civic technologies as available and affordable, and for whom awareness and abilities are no restriction, agency may remain a formidable barrier.

A person may feel that trying to change the situation that constrains them is futile, that they are not up to the task or that those with power to change the situation will not listen to them. It is some people’s experience that politicians have never sought their opinion or that their priorities and interests are always ignored.

Engaging such marginalised communities in digital citizenship initiatives may require activities specifically designed to address people’s depressed sense of political agency. The literature on women’s empowerment and critical consciousness‐raising provides useful guidance for enhancing levels of agency for development.

This post is adapted from the 5’A’s of Technology Access in the Philippines by Dr. Tony Roberts and Kevin Hernandez at the Institute of Development Studies.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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3 Comments to “The Digital Divide is Not Binary: The Five A’s of Technology Access – Your Weekend Long Reads”

  1. samir rodrigues haddad says:

    How to reference this work in a scientific journal article?
    Vota, W. (2019). The Digital Divide is Not Binary: The Five A’s of Technology Access. ITCWorks disponible em http://www.ictworks.org/digital-divide-technology-access/

  2. J Carlsen says:

    This was a great article! I found it really accessible. Thanks for sharing, and making it into a digestible post, Wayan.