The global view

Steve Hill looks at the development of the internet around the world, picking out the technology hot

Internet usage might be spreading rapidly around the world, but a digital divide is emerging between the information haves and have-nots. In Europe, Scandinavia and Australia, the number of people going online is increasing dramatically, helped by a reduction in net access costs. The subscription-free internet access model, which was pioneered by Freeserve in Britain in 1998, has been copied in many countries across Europe.

Former nationalised telecommunication companies still dominate the markets across much of Europe. Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Telecom Italia and British Telecom still boast huge market shares in their respective countries, and this has slowed down the roll-out of second-generation internet technology, including high-speed broadband access.

But while internet use is increasing in the west, in south Asia, South America and Africa, it's still worryingly low. A recent United Nations Development Programme report showed that the typical internet user is male, under 35 years old, with a university education and high income, urban-based and English-speaking.

South Asia, with 23 per cent of the world's population, has less than 1 per cent of the world's internet users. Poverty, poor telecoms infrastructure and a lack of technical knowledge are all big barriers to overcome. A PC costs the average Bangladeshi more than eight years' income: it costs just one month's wage for the average American.

Steve Hill is features editor of Internet Magazine


Saudi Arabia

Internet service providers have sprung up only in the past two years. There are approximately 300,000 people online, or 1.4 per cent of the population. There are now 37 ISPs licensed by the government, and their servers are housed in government buildings. Last month, the Saudi Telecom Company (STC) announced a reduction of one-third on the rates it charges the public for accessing the internet. It is hoped that this will encourage users to spend more time online, but it will do little to encourage more users online, because ISP subscription fees remain high. Some ISPs charge according to the amount of data downloaded, as well as a subscription fee.

Before they can get net access, it's common for users to have to sign an affidavit promising not to download inappropriate material.

E-commerce has yet to take off, due to low credit card penetration and consumer purchasing power. The websites of Amazon (www.amazon.com) and the software retailer Sakhr (www.sakhrsoft.com) are popular among net users who shop online.

Ireland

Internet usage is rising fast, yet the numbers shopping online remain static. 592,000 people are online, or 16.3 per cent. l A survey in April by Amarach Consulting showed that just 10 per cent of net users in Ireland bought goods online in the three months before being polled. That percentage has not changed at all in the past year. This lack of growth has been put down to a number of factors, including a dearth of Irish e-commerce sites and a low level of credit card ownership.

Internet users in Ireland are more likely to be employed males aged between 25 and 49 who are financially comfortable.

The most popular sites are MSN (www.msn.com), followed by Yahoo! UK & Ireland (www.yahoo.co.uk).

Finland

Finland has approximately 1.9 million people online, or 38 per cent of the population. Helsinki is regarded as one of the most wired cities in the world, with more than 60 per cent of its population online.

Around 20 per cent of Scandinavia's online population has already shopped online. Online banking and financial services are more advanced in Finland than anywhere else in the world.

Finland stands to make huge market gains in mobile e-commerce via companies such as Nokia and Ericsson. Already, mobile-phone users can buy CDs and bid in auctions.

The most popular sites include Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) and MSN (www.msn.com).

Japan

The high cost of local telephone charges and concern about fraud are pre-venting the growth of internet usage in Japan. What's more, the Japanese pay over 30 per cent more in internet connection fees than Americans. Approx-imately 27 million people - or 20 per cent of the population - are online. About 14 per cent of the population access the internet using the i-mode service offered by DoCoMo, the mobile arm of the local telecoms giant NTT.

Only a third of Japanese net users are women. This compares poorly with the US and UK, where there's no longer a gender gap.

The most popular websites are Sony Online (www.sony.jp), the website of the ISP Nifty (www.nifty.com) and the free web-space provider Geocities (www.geocities.jp).

United Kingdom

With approximately 15.7 million people online (or 26 per cent of the population), the UK is seen as one of the key markets for e-commerce outside the US. Freeserve, the subscription-free ISP run by Dixons, revolutionised the net access market, bringing over a million new users online within six months. Around 30 per cent of people who access the net at home do so with Freeserve.

A report by CommerceNet in September showed that a quarter of UK net users had shopped online. Of these, 70 per cent were university graduates and earned more than £30,000 a year.

There is considerable concern among civil liberty groups about the effects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. This will allow the government to intercept e-mails and other data.

The most popular sites are Yahoo! (www.yahoo.co.uk), followed by BBC Online (www.bbc.co.uk) and Freeserve (www.freeserve.com).

India

The percentage of the population online in India is worryingly low, despite the presence of a large software manufacturing industry. Approximately 4.5 million people, or 0.5 per cent of the population, are online. According to a survey by IMRB International, only 8 per cent of the population have a PC at home and only 48 per cent have access to a telephone line.

Cable access has been identified as a solution to mass take-up.

Portal websites such as Rediff (www.rediff.com) and India World (www.indiaworld.co.in) are popular.

China

The Phillips Group has predicted that the number of internet users in Asia will grow by 422 per cent over the next few years. There are approximately 8.9 million people in China online, or 0.71 per cent of the population. Beijing has the highest internet penetration of any city in the country. l Around 5 per cent of net users have bought goods online. Books, groceries and computer products are the best sellers. l The cost of computer hardware is regarded as the most serious barrier to net usage. Only 1.7 per cent of households in China have a PC. Most people who use the internet do so at work or in cybercafes. l The Chinese government has taken steps to censor the internet via state-run ISPs. l The most popular websites include the news-based China.com (www.china.com) and the search engine Sohu (www.sohu.com).

Malaysia

Malaysia has approximately 600,000 users online, or 3 per cent of the population. The online retail market is growing fast, however, and is likely to be invaded by numerous American websites.

The high cost of telephone calls and ISP subscription charges means that, for the foreseeable future, online custom will still come from business users and the top end of the residential market.

In recent years, the government has attempted to censor the internet. A section of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act covers the false transmission of news online, and, in March, police arrested two internet users for spreading rumours of a riot online.

The most popular sites include MSN (www.msn.com) and Lycos Asia (www.lycosasia.com.my).

United States

The US kick-started the global internet revolution, and almost half the world's internet users are based there. Around 123.6 million people, or 45.33 per cent of the population, are online.

American users spend more time online than those in any other country - an average of 12 hours a week.

US internet users tend to be well educated - 72 per cent of college graduates are online, while 26.7 per cent of those with only a high-school education are online. The gender gap has disappeared in the States: 49.1 per cent of users are female. And 54 per cent of users make online purchases.

Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) is the most popular site, followed by AOL (www.aol.com) and MSN (www.msn.com).

Brazil

The Boston Consulting Group predicted that online shopping would be worth $160m in South America last year. Brazil is the biggest e-commerce player in the region, and it accounted for 88 per cent of those sales.

Approximately 6.79 million people (3.95 per cent of the population) are online. High telephone charges, low PC ownership and a poor telecoms infrastructure hold back growth. But slowly things are changing. Banks and car dealerships are giving away free net connections to encourage customer loyalty. l Brazilian banks are also extending their financial services online and creating online shopping malls on their sites. There are few credit card holders in Brazil, but recent developments allow internet users to shop at these bank malls by using money held at the bank to pay for purchases.

Popular sites include Universo Online (www.uol.com.br) and the Telefonica-owned Zaz (www.zaz.com.br).

This article first appeared in Education, education, profit

2000-07-10