The number of European households connected to the Internet increased by 55 percent between March and October of last year and Europe now has more users than the US, the European Commission said Wednesday.
Forty-percent of Europeans, including occasional users, now have access to the Internet, as do around 28 percent of households, according to a study by Eurobarometer, the market research division of the European Union executive body.
Although the penetration isn't as high as in the United States, it is enough for EU citizens to outnumber Americans on the Net, the Commission said. The EU population totals around 375 million, while about 270 million people live in the US.
"This is the first estimate we've made since the launch of the eEurope Action Plan," said Per Haugaard, spokesman on Internet-related issues at the Commission.
One reason for the sharp rise is the increasingly liberalized telecoms market in Europe, the European Union executive body said. Internet access prices fell by an average of 23 percent over the same period the year before and by as much as 47 percent in some EU countries.
Internet growth has been even faster in EU schools; 80 percent are now connected to the Internet for educational purposes, the Commission said.
"It shows that our efforts to bring prices down, lift skills up and boost consumer confidence are going in the right direction," said Haugaard.
But the Commission warned that passive usage of the Internet still prevails, such as information searches and downloads. "The whole potential of the Internet is not yet fully exploited in terms of e-commerce and other interactive services," the Commission said in a statement.
The findings were published in a new position paper entitled 'Impact and Priorities of the eEurope 2002 initiative, in the run-up to the summit of heads of state in Stockholm, Sweden on March 23-24.
The document consists of two parts: an assessment of the take-up and use of the Internet, and priorities for future action, as requested at the Nice summit of EU leaders last December.
"The year 2000 was the year of real breakthrough of Internet in Europe," Commissioner for the information society Erkki Liikanen said.
But, he added, "We cannot be complacent if the full economic benefits are to be achieved. I hope that the year 2001 will be the year when all industry sectors fully embrace the internet's full potential. Addressing the remaining barriers needs to be the top priority."
The European Commission can be reached at +-32-2-299-11-11 or found on the Web at http://europa.eu.int/.