Mobile phones have become the go-to form of communication for most people around the world. Ever since they burst onto the mainstream scene in the 1990s, usage has been growing. Today, more than 5 billion people own a mobile phone of some sort, with 4 billion of those being smartphones. Both numbers represent more than half of the world's population.
However, as we all know, today's mobile phones are far more than just phones. They are also cameras, computers, and so much more. While this is all well and good, these services cost money. For most of us, it often feels like this is too much money.
In the United States, the average cost of a phone bill is around $70 per month. How does this stack up against what people pay in other countries?
It turns out this isn't the most straightforward question to answer. Not every country uses the same type of money, and prices are often not comparable.
When we crunched the numbers and researched the price differences in other countries, we found that data is cheaper in 118 countries. This suggests the US has some of the most expensive data in the world.
Want to find out how we figured this out? Read our complete study on the cost of mobile data worldwide.
To properly compare the cost of data in countries worldwide, it's essential to establish a standard unit of measure. Each country has its own currency, and living standards will be different depending on where you live.
As a hypothetical example, we know that people in the US pay around $70 per month for their phone bills, but perhaps people in Spain only pay $30.
At first glance, it might seem like data in the United States is a little more than twice as expensive as it is in Spain. Yet how much data are the Spaniards getting for their $30 per month? And how does that compare to salaries on the ground in Spain? We need to dig a bit deeper to find out if data really is more expensive in the US than in Spain.
This is why measuring the cost of 1 GB of data is an effective method. It allows us to compare the same unit in one country versus another. In addition, it's also important to standardize the currency we use. For our purposes, we are going to use the US dollar. This means all of our measurements will refer to how much a GB of data costs.
As it turns out, when we do this, the cost of 1 GB of data in Spain is $0.65, but in the United States, it's $3.33. That makes data about five times as expensive in the US as in Spain, suggesting the Spaniards are getting far more bang for their buck. It also reminds us why just comparing the cost of phone bills is not relevant.
In addition to looking at the price per GB, we are also zeroing in on just 4G broadband connections.
Anything slower than this can hardly be classified as useful, and 5G technology is still so new that there aren't enough countries we could study.
Therefore, when looking at the prices listed below, remember that everything is listed in USD/GB of 4G.
However, just looking at prices in USD still doesn't tell us exactly what's going on.
Measuring the cost of 1GB of data in USD in different countries of the world gives us a valuable snapshot of the different prices in other countries. If we want to go one step further, we should convert these prices using a measure known as Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).
PPP tells us how much of an impact the cost of a product or service has on the quality of life of the individuals living in that country.
To give a more concrete example, let's consider two countries: the United States and India.
Without using PPP, 1 GB of data in the US costs $3.33, and it costs just $0.68 in India.
At first glance, this makes it seem like data is much cheaper in India than in the United States. However, salaries are much lower in India than they are in the US. $0.68 might be much more of a burden to your average Indian citizen than the $3.33 is to the average US citizen.
To check if this is the case, we calculated the PPP cost of 1 GB of data in India. We do this by dividing the price of 1 GB of data in India using its local currency (Indian Rupees) by the PPP conversion factor provided by the World Bank, which is 21.28. This number comes from an analysis of the price of various goods in both countries.
Doing this will give us a new price in USDs that better reflects the true cost of 1 GB in India. Here is the calculation:
49 Rs / 21.28 = $2.32
If we go back to the original calculation, it appeared that data in India was a little less than six times cheaper than it is in the US. However, when we recalculate using PPP, we find that it's a little less than twice as cheap in reality.
This is because, relative to the cost of other goods in India, the amount of money you spend on one GB of data ($0.68) should be able to buy you $2.32 worth of goods. In other words, while data in India is still cheaper than it is in the US, the difference isn't anywhere near as dramatic as it was at first glance.
This number is a much better depiction of the cost of data in India.
Below we will present you with lots of data. First, we will look at prices in USD without PPP. Then, we will include PPP, and then we will break things down by region, including PPP prices.
Before we do a deep dive into the numbers, here are some of the highlights from our study:
To understand some of these numbers, it's helpful to take a quick refresher in basic math. The average is the sum of the total cost divided by the number of countries. The median is the number that sits in the middle of the set.
In this data set, the median is a better measure because there is such a dramatic difference between the most and least expensive countries.
Therefore, while the US appears to have mobile data that costs below the worldwide average, we shouldn't take this to mean that data in the US is cheaper than it is in other countries.
If we use the median, it reveals that data prices in the US are actually considerably more than they are in other parts of the world.
Now that you understand our approach and have a snapshot of what's going on globally, let's dig deeper into the numbers.
Before we start looking at more numbers, it's essential to consider what causes such wide discrepancies in data costs worldwide. This will make it easier to put the numbers we present into their proper context.
Here are some of the biggest factors in determining the cost of mobile data:
As end-users, for us to access the internet using our phones, we need to pull our devices out of our pockets and tap a few buttons. Then, voila! We are connected to the internet. However, this doesn't just happen magically. Behind that simple act is a complicated infrastructure that connects the internet to our phones.
Interestingly, most countries get their mobile internet service through a fixed-line connection, meaning wires are literally laid down on the ground, connecting towers that transmit the signal over the air. Your phone picks up these signals and delivers internet service to you.
This seems pretty backward since we refer to these connections as "wireless," but the reality is that they are very much wired. Yet, no matter how backward this may seem, this is the most efficient way of delivering mobile broadband service to people.
The initial expense of laying all that cable is enormous. However, once this is absorbed, service providers can quickly ramp up the quality of the connections they provide, meaning faster speeds at little to no extra cost.
In the wealthier, more developed countries, a lot of this infrastructure existed before mobile data. It was built to deliver electricity, phone service, and later cable television. This means that these countries could roll out mobile networks much more quickly and at a much lower cost, leading to lower prices for the end consumer.
In countries where this infrastructure does not exist, service providers have two options: building the infrastructure or using something else.
As mentioned, building this infrastructure when it's not already there is a massive expense, which usually requires considerable coordination between governments and corporations.
Using something else typically means using satellites. This is also relatively expensive, but the other problem is that these connections are usually slower and deliver fewer gigabytes, driving up the cost of data per GB and reducing the overall quality of service.
Building the infrastructure required for delivering mobile internet service in countries where it does not already exist is one of the biggest roadblocks to closing the digital divide, a phenomenon we will discuss in more detail later on in the article.
Another key factor in determining the cost of mobile data in a country is the level of competition that exists in the mobile broadband market.
In the United States, for example, there are three major providers: AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile (which was Sprint up until a little more than a year ago). Together, these three companies control about 95 percent of the mobile broadband network. There are others, such as US Cellular and Leap Wireless, but they hold just a tiny fraction of the market.
Most economists agree that three companies in one market produce enough competition for prices to be fair, though the existence of more makes it even more robust.
Again, in countries where mobile internet is still a relatively new technology, there tend to be fewer companies from which consumers can choose. This can lead to higher prices and worse service, though other variables at play make it so that this is not always the case.
Something else that can impact the cost of data in one country versus another is how much data its inhabitants can use. As mentioned, most mobile broadband networks run on fixed connections, which means they have limited bandwidth.
If you're unsure what bandwidth is, it's helpful to think of the mobile internet infrastructure as if it were the pipes in your home. Your connection speed refers to how fast the water can move through those pipes, but bandwidth is how much water can move at a given time. If too much is being pushed through the pipes, then the overall flow rate will be slower.
When it comes to mobile data, the same thing applies. In places where there is either limited infrastructure or heavy dependence, it's more likely the system will become overwhelmed. This slows service down. In most cases, this will result in higher prices since companies will use the law of supply and demand to charge more for faster connections.
In countries such as the United States, demand is high, and the infrastructure is robust. This helps keep prices per GB relatively low compared to other countries with similar levels of demand but not the required infrastructure.
The other major factor in determining the cost of data in a country is the income levels of the people living there. In wealthier countries where wages are higher, such as in the United States, Canada, and Europe, mobile broadband companies can charge more for their services simply because people can afford to pay these higher prices.
Typically, the way they get away with doing this is by providing faster connection speeds, something they can do thanks to the infrastructure usually present in these countries.
However, in other countries where wealth levels are lower overall, people can't afford these prices. Therefore, if the telecommunications companies want to make any money, they need to find a way to offer services at a lower rate. This is why it often looks like data rates are considerably lower in countries we would typically consider to be poorer.
There are a few important caveats here. First, overall connection speeds are more likely to be slower in these countries. Mobile broadband companies aren't as interested in delivering the best possible connection as they are in getting as many people onto their networks as they can. In addition, because they can't charge as much money, they are less likely to invest in the infrastructure needed to raise speeds.
Another thing to consider is the relative cost of data. Data may look cheaper in a country such as India, but then if we consider the average salary in India, and we compare that to what people are paying for data, this monthly expenditure can be pretty high. This is why comparing data prices per GB can often give us a limited understanding of how much data costs. Another reason why using PPP is the best way to measure the cost of mobile data around the world.
The ten countries with the most expensive data in the world as measured by cost per GB are:
In total, there are 13 countries in the world where data costs more than $10 per GB and another 32 that have data prices above $5 per GB. These numbers reinforce why using the median is a better measure in this study.
A handful of countries have extremely high data prices, and this drives up the worldwide average. The vast majority of countries spend less than $5 per GB of mobile data.
These numbers are high. Very high. Equatorial Guinea and the Falkland Islands are major outliers, though every country on this list has extremely high data prices. There are a few reasons for this, but the big one is infrastructure.
These are some of the poorest nations in the world and some of the most remote. The Falkland Islands are located about 750 miles east of Argentina's southern Patagonian coast. In other words, the middle of nowhere.
However, as we will see, being economically underdeveloped doesn't always mean high data prices if the population depends on this technology.
In these cases, mobile broadband providers are compelled to offer cheaper services that cost what the population can pay. In these countries, what has happened is that there is minimal infrastructure and also very little demand, which means the providers that do exist are only marketing to the wealthiest members of society.
Therefore, they can charge exorbitant prices, and people will pay them, driving overall data costs way up. Of course, there are likely other things at play, but this combination of circumstances likely explains the very high data prices in these countries.
In total, 53 nations worldwide have per GB data costs of less than $1. There are another 54 where 1GB of data costs less than $2.
In this smattering of countries, we see a much more diverse picture than we did in the list of the most expensive countries.
On the one hand, countries such as Israel, Italy, Chile, and France likely have such cheap mobile data prices because of their existing infrastructure. Those unfamiliar with Latin American geopolitics might raise an eyebrow at Chile's inclusion in this list. Yet, Chile is the region's most advanced economy, and the majority of its population lives within a relatively small area. This density means it's easy to build a solid infrastructure to deliver high-speed mobile data at relatively low prices.
Fiji is a small island nation that is relatively affluent, allowing it to have a strong infrastructure. Russia has long been a country where the government is willing to invest heavily in public services, which may also play a role in bringing prices down.
However, on the other hand, many of you may be surprised to see nations such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh on this list.
Traditionally thought of as some of the poorer countries in South Asia, these countries have large populations that depend heavily on mobile services. These countries are perfect examples of what we described earlier: places where service providers can make money by providing cheap services to the massive population.
There are several countries in the world where this is true. India doesn't make it onto the top-ten list but has a per GB cost of just $0.68. China, another country with a vast population, spends just $0.58, and Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, spends just XXXX
The above lists give us a glimpse into which countries spend the most and which spend the least on mobile data. As we mentioned, comparing prices in just USD is not the most accurate way to do things since it does not account for the cost of data relative to other goods in that nation.
To try and get a better picture, we put together a ranking of the most and least expensive data prices in the world using PPP. For these lists, we've expanded the data set to include 25 countries to show how the position of those that initially made it into the top ten changed once we leveled the playing field using PPP.
This gives us a better idea of the actual cost of data in these countries. Here's the data:
With this data set, we don't see a lot of change in terms of rankings. The Falkland Islands did not make it onto this list since PPP data is not available for this British Territory.
However, what is shocking about this list is the change in prices. The best example of this is Sudan. Using just the USD values, it appeared to have the 4th lowest data prices globally. When we account for what $0.27 can buy in Sudan, the cost of data jumps to a whopping $9.90. This makes it the 23rd most expensive country in the world. This isn't much of a surprise considering the high levels of extreme poverty in Sudan, a country ravaged by civil war for decades.
Another excellent example of this is Equatorial Guinea. Using just USD, the cost of 1 GB of data is $49.67. If we account for PPP, this means that 1 GB of data costs the equivalent of $111.85.
What this data tells us is that Europe has some of the cheapest data in the world. However, this picture is not as clear when we just look at prices in USD.
The main reason for this is that standards of living in Europe are similar to those in the United States. Therefore, the prices listed in the highlighted countries in this table are much lower than those in the US.
It also helps prove the theory about why data is so cheap in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. To make mobile data viable there, providers must bring prices down, and they appear to have done so in a way that makes data affordable for those countries.
If this weren't the case, then these countries should disappear from the list when we account for PPP prices.
Up until now, we've discussed the data prices in just a handful of countries, but there are more than 250 in the world.
So, to provide you with a complete picture, we put together a list of the countries with the ten most and least expensive data prices in each region of the world: The Americas (North, Central, and South America), Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Data was not available in every country of the world, so there are some omissions. Yet, this does give us a much more complete picture of what data costs worldwide.
To start trying to put things in context, we also included the PPP conversion in these tables. Here's what we found:
As you can see, the cost of mobile data varies widely around the world. In general, prices are coming down, and they seem to be the cheapest in Europe.
In many "developing" countries, data is cheaper. Whether or not these prices are still low in that particular market depends considerably on the country.
In places such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and China, cheap pretty much means cheap. However, in Sudan, what initially appears to be cheap is exorbitantly expensive. This is why it's so important to consider purchasing power parity (PPP) when comparing prices from one country to another.
As for the United States, without using PPP, it ranks 70th. When we include PPP, it drops to 119th, suggesting that data prices are considerably higher in the United States than in the rest of the world.
This large discrepancy speaks to an important issue facing the world today: the digital divide.
As our world continues to move more and more online, the internet is increasingly vital for accessing the many opportunities these technologies provide. Cost is frequently the biggest barrier to access, and this data shows that this continues to be the case in many places.
Moving forward, as a global society, we must pay attention to this and, where possible, make the necessary investments to ensure everyone has access to the resources they need to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.