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the Guardian/UK

China Overtaking US for Fast Internet Access as Africa gets Left Behind

Richard Wray

Almost 300 million people worldwide are now accessing the internet using fast broadband connections, fuelling the growth of social networking services such as MySpace and generating thousands of hours of video through websites such as YouTube.

There are more than 1.1 billion of the world's estimated 6.6 billion people online and almost a third of them are now accessing the internet on high-speed lines. According to the internet consultancy Point Topic, 298 million people had broadband at the end of March and that is already estimated to have shot over 300 million. The statistics, however, paint a picture of a divided digital world.

0614 09While there are high levels of broadband penetration in western Europe, North America and hi-tech economies such as South Korea, usage in developing countries, and especially in Africa, is pitiful. Many of these emerging economies lack telephone services, let alone the sort of broadband internet access that has become available to every household in Europe.

In terms of total broadband users, the US leads the pack with more than 60 million subscribers. But second-placed China is fast closing the gap. From 41 million users a year ago, China now has more than 56 million and looks set to overtake the US as the world's largest broadband market this year.

Katja Mueller, research director at Point Topic, said: "What amazed me when compiling these figures is that China has leapt ahead and actually had more people sign up to broadband in the first three months of this year than in any other earlier quarter."

China's rampant growth is a result of economic changes and government intervention. The country's economic boom has helped create an affluent urban middle class clamouring for the social aspects of internet access, while the government has been driving the roll-out of internet access in rural areas.

Next year's Beijing Olympics has provided a fillip to the market with the government demanding that every household in the capital has high-speed internet access in time for the games.

Japan ranked third, with 26.5 million broadband users at the end of March this year, while Germany is fourth at more than 16 million. France scored the highest growth (9%) in take-up among the top 10 broadband nations to leapfrog South Korea - at 14.1 million - to take the fifth spot with 15.3 million.

The UK came in sixth with just under 14 million broadband users at the end of March, up 6.4%. Demand in the UK has been driven by fierce competition from the satellite broadcaster Sky, which launched its broadband service last year, and the introduction of "free" broadband offers from firms such as TalkTalk.

But in terms of broadband usage as a percentage of households, the UK's position in the global rankings slips to number 17, with 55.5% of households connecting to the internet at high speed.

Based on broadband penetration, South Korea is by far the world's top broadband user with nearly 90% of households online. Several small, economically vibrant and densely populated states are also high on the list such as Hong Kong, Monaco and Macau. The US, with broadband penetration at just under 53%, is in 24th place. Penetration in China, meanwhile, is 14.35% while in India penetration stands at just 1.15% of the country's estimated 200 million households.

Penetration levels in eastern Europe, meanwhile, may be low but the region scored the highest overall level of growth in take-up, becoming the only area to show growth of more than 10%.

The region's economic rehabilitation, in part thanks to the inclusion of several states in an expanded EU, is driving take-up, according to Point Topic. Poland saw growth in new broadband connections of 9% in the first quarter, with Hungary at 10.38%, Bulgaria at 10.94%, Ukraine at nearly 15% and Croatia at a staggering 25%.

"Penetration of broadband in eastern Europe was really low, but it is starting to catch up with Europe and we expect eastern Europe to continue to grow," said Ms Mueller.

In fact, Indonesia scored the highest growth across the world in the first quarter - almost 28% - but from a very low base. Greece, meanwhile was second with growth of over 26% due to the rather late introduction of broadband by incumbent operator OTE.

The figures, however, show just how large the gap is between the digital haves and have nots. Many sub-Saharan African states do not register in the figures at all: only South Africa, Sudan, Senegal and Gabon make it on to the list, with household broadband penetration running from 1.79% in South Africa - with 215,000 users at the end of March - to just 0.05% in Sudan with a mere 3,000. North African states fare slightly better with Morocco scoring 6.78% penetration with 418,000 users, and Egypt at 1.55% or 240,000. Many African states are now looking to mobile phone companies to provide access to the internet as they struggle to find a place at the digital table.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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