The number of people who accessed the Internet at least once a week from their businesses and homes grew to 147 million worldwide in 1998, up from 61 million in 1996, says a recent report by Computer Industry Almanac.
The expanding number is projected to rise to about 320 million by 2000 and 720 million by 2005, the report says.
The tremendous growth in Internet use over the last couple of years was surprising, said Emil Juliussen, primary author of the report. "The one [finding] that sticks out the most is that Scandinavian countries had the highest number of Internet users on a per capita basis than did any other country -- even than the US."
That's partly because Scandinavian countries use the Internet for conducting a lot of their import and export business, which accounts for a large portion of the gross national product in those countries, Juliussen said. "The Internet contributes to their effectiveness."
The US's lead in Internet access accounted for almost 52 per cent of Internet users worldwide in 1998, totalling 76.5 million users, according to findings of the report, titled "The Internet User Forecast 1990-2005". The US will grow to over 207 million Internet users in 2005, or 29 per cent of Internet users worldwide, the report predicts.
The projected drop in the US's percentage of total Internet users is a fairly standard progression as the US market becomes saturated, Juliussen said.
The top five countries with the highest Internet usage are the US; Japan with 9.75 million users; the UK with 8.10 million users; Germany with 7.14 million users; and Canada with 6.49 million users.
The number of European Internet users totalled 36.02 million, or almost 25 per cent of worldwide users last year, the report says.
Other top countries in Internet usage for 1998 included Australia with 4.36 million users; France with 2.79 million users; Sweden with 2.58 million users; Italy with 2.14 million users; Spain with 1.98 million users; The Netherlands with 1.96 million users; Taiwan with 1.65 million users; China with 1.58 million users; Finland with 1.57 million users; and Norway with 1.34 million users.
Economics and geography are factors in countries with high Internet usage, Juliussen said.
"The Internet makes sense for those countries that are geographically isolated, such as Australia and New Zealand," he said. "Some of the early adopters of Internet access, after the US, were small, medium and large companies in Finland, Sweden and Norway."
Also, it makes sense that wealthier countries, such as the US, are more likely to have higher Internet access than countries that lack the financial resources to set up computers and the communication systems needed for Net access, Juliussen added.
Data from different organisations around the world were gathered for analysis in the report. The Computer Industry Almanac, which has been analysing computer usage since 1980, then "puts the pieces together like a puzzle and fills in the holes with its own statistics", Juliussen said.