The internet and mobile phones have changed how people live, work, connect, and exchange information. The number of internet users increased globally from 410 million in 2000 to nearly 4.9 billion in 2021 and is expected to continue double-digit growth (International Telecommunications Union 2021). A vast majority of internet users have access through a mobile phone – there were more than 3.5 billion mobile internet subscribers in 2019 (GSMA 2019).
In recent years, research has established that the internet has major economic and political impact. Hjort and Poulsen (2019) show that the arrival of fast broadband internet positively affected employment in Africa. Zuo (2021) shows that employment probabilities of poor households in the US and their earnings increased after obtaining internet access. Guriev et al. (2019) establish that the rollout of 3G mobile internet increases awareness of government corruption and reduces trust in political institutions when the internet is not censored.
In Adema et al. (2022), we study how 3G mobile internet rollout causally affects people’s desire and plans to emigrate. We combine two unique data sets: Gallup World Polls and Collins Bartholomew’s Mobile Coverage Explorer. Combining these gives us data from 617,402 individuals living in 2,120 subnational regions in 112 countries, collected over 11 years. To derive causal effects on desire and plans to emigrate, we exploit variation in subnational 3G mobile internet coverage over time.
Desire and plans to emigrate are associated with migration flows
We first check to what extent our outcome variables (i.e. desire and plans to emigrate) are significantly associated with actual migration flows. We make use of the fact that we observe individuals’ most desired destination as well as the destination country they are planning to move to. We use these data to construct the number of people desiring and planning to migrate between any origin and destination country. We then match our desired and planned migration-flow matrix with data on actual migration flows to OECD countries between 2008 and 2018.
The results presented in Figure 1 confirm that our outcome variables are strongly associated with the official migrant flow data between 2008 and 2018. We find that the raw correlation on the origin-destination level between the log of actual migrant flows and the log of the number of people desiring to migrate from a specific origin to a specific destination is 0.77. The correlation between the log of actual migrant flows and the log of the number of people desiring to migrate from a specific origin to a specific destination is 0.68.
Figure 1 Correlation between migration intentions and actual migration flows
Increases in 3G coverage impact desire and plans to emigrate
We find that increases in 3G coverage have a sizeable impact on the desire and plans to emigrate and that the impact is approximately linear (Figure 2). An increase of 10 percentage points in 3G mobile coverage leads to an increase of 0.27 percentage points in the desire to emigrate permanently. In addition, we find that such an increase leads to an increase of 0.09 percentage points in plans to emigrate permanently over the ensuing 12 months in our preferred specification.
When moving from no to full 3G coverage, the implied aggregate effect is about 12% of the baseline average of desire and 33% of plans to emigrate permanently. The estimates imply that in a country with 10 million adult inhabitants, a move from no 3G coverage to full coverage would increase the number of people desiring to emigrate by 56,000 to 486,000.
Using municipal level data from Spain, we also show that 3G expansion not only alters emigration desires but also increases actual emigration of home-country nationals. Our estimates suggest that switching from no 3G coverage to full 3G coverage increased the annual emigration rate by 15% from the level before 3G coverage was extended.
Figure 2 The non-parametric effect of 3G rollout on the desire to emigrate
Heterogeneity analysis using causal forest
We also look beyond the average effects to understand how the causal effects vary with observable characteristics. We find the strongest treatment effects for high-income individuals in high-income regions, and the lowest effects for low-income individuals in low-income regions (Figure 3).
Figure 3 Heatmap of conditional average treatment effect (CATE)
Exploring the mechanisms behind our results, we show that the effect of 3G coverage on the desire to emigrate is strong for individuals who were without any prior network abroad; we find no statistically significant effect for those who already have a network abroad. In addition, upon receiving 3G coverage, preferred destinations change towards destination countries with lower stocks of migrants from the same origin in 2005. This suggests that internet access boosts the desire to emigrate primarily by reducing the costs of finding information on opportunities abroad, substituting for personal networks.
We also show that 3G coverage does not change the financial situation of respondents (e.g. household income) or their perceptions about the level of corruption in their country. Instead, 3G coverage has a negative effect on the perception of relative financial wellbeing as well as on trust in the government, which potentially shapes emigration desires.
Our results highlight that access to mobile internet not only increases the overall desire to emigrate but also is likely to redirect migration flows towards less popular destinations. In the medium term, this can be expected to increase international trade and knowledge transfer back to origin countries (Parsons and Vezina 2018, Fackler et al. 2020) and could also stimulate innovation in destination countries as birthplace diversity has been found to be related to economic prosperity (Alesina et al. 2013).
Adema, J, C G Aksoy and P Poutvaara (2022), “Mobile internet access and the desire to emigrate”, CESifo Working Paper No. 9758.
Alesina, A, J Harnoss and H Rapoport (2013), “Immigration, diversity, and economic prosperity”, VoxEU.org, 22 August.
Fackler, T, Y Giesing and N Laurentsyeva (2020), “Knowledge remittances: Does emigration foster innovation?”, Research Policy 49(9): 103863.
GSMA (2019), The state of mobile internet connectivity.
Guriev, S, N Melnikov and E Zhuravskaya (2019), “Knowledge is power: Mobile internet, government confidence, and populism”, VoxEU.org, 31 October.
Hjort, J, and J Poulsen (2019), “The arrival of fast internet and employment in Africa.” American Economic Review 109(3): 1032–79.
International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (2021), Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2021, Geneva: ITU.
Parsons, C, and P L Vézina. (2018), “Migrant networks boost trade: Evidence from the Vietnamese boat people”, VoxEU.org, 15 August.
Zuo, G W (2021), “Wired and hired: Employment effects of subsidized broadband Internet for low-income Americans”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 13(3): 447–82.