2001: Britons get comfortable online

We became more wired in 2001 - users got more focused on what they wanted out of the Net, and millions flocked online for news about the US attacks

The UK experienced its first dip in the fast growth of British home Internet penetration in 2001. But concerns of an Internet slowdown were lifted by the fact that the number of UK homes connecting to the Internet increased by more than 50 percent in the last 12 months.

The home Internet population exceeded the 12 million mark for the first time in March 2001. With nine million households having an Internet connection -- representing more than a third of all UK households -- the home was rapidly emerging as the most popular place for Britons to access the Internet.

Fears that a socio-economic Internet division was forming in Britain were slightly eased at the start of 2001, with news that the number of underprivileged households getting connected had risen by 870,000 in the past 12 months. The Internet research company Jupiter MMXI reported that while high-income families generating incomes of £45,000 and over had experienced a 5 percent decline in Internet access, households with annual incomes below £15,000 represented 17.3 percent of Britons online.

The positive outlook for Internet take-up in Britain was also true of the e-business sector towards the start of 2001. A report published in April by the Industrial Research Bureau ranked London as the e-business capital of Europe. Over 86 percent of British e-tailers expected online sales to increase over the next six months, and 42 percent of UK e-commerce entrepreneurs were expecting to recruit new staff over the same period.

Sadly, this Internet enthusiasm was not true for all business - by the middle of 2001, 35 million workers out of 80 million across the UK, France and Germany still did not have access to a computer or the Internet either at home or at work.

It wasn't out of lack of interest, though: A light-hearted Mouse in the House report published by MORI revealed that when it comes to fringe benefits, employees would rather have a home PC and Internet access provided by their employer than gym membership. Within the report 10 million British employees said that access to a home PC should not be limited to those who can afford one, and felt the government should encourage employer schemes to provide home technology for all.

A total of 2.7 million Brits had connected to the Internet in the first half of 2001 according to NetValue statistics, which equated to a new user every six seconds. By June, the UK home Internet population stood at 13.9 million. The Internet phenomenon Big Brother was a significant factor in driving people online in the summer months this year. The Channel 4 Web site became the fastest moving Web site in recorded Internet history, entering the rankings at 26th position in July, and soaring to 8th position in August. At its peak, the site had a reach of 17.8 percent of the UK online population, amounting to 1,926,000 individuals visiting the Big Brother house online.

August statistics also revealed a new breed of Internet users, with games consoles and digital TV emerging as the fastest growing access points for the Internet. The Online Market Landscape conducted by Jupiter MMXI revealed that the number of Britons surfing the Internet from games consoles increased by over one million people in the second quarter, taking the group up to a total of three million. TV set-top box Web access grew by half a million in the same period to a total of one and a half million.

The number of home Internet users reached 15 million in September 2001, according to NetValue. Its research also revealed that Britons were spending more time on the Web, with the average person spending 7.3 hours online per month over 9.4 days. The number of domains visited per Internet user had decreased from an average of 58 to 44, but the time spent on each domain had increased, as had the number of pages viewed per domain. The findings suggested that British Internet users have become more loyal to a select number of sites in 2001.

But the most significant Internet moment in 2001 occurred in the days following the terrorist attacks on America. Moments after the first reports surfaced of the destruction caused to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Internet users around the world turned to the major online news outlets for information about the attacks. According to Jupiter MMXI, an average of 11.7 million people logged onto news sites each day, with the online news category growing by almost 80 percent between 11 and 16 September compared to the previous week. BBC.co.uk grew by more than 260 percent, catapulting from 146,000 to 546,000 average daily unique US visitors.

At the close of 2001, figures from the telecoms watchdog Oftel suggested that Internet take-up is levelling off in Britain. The next wave of technology is likely to be dominated by broadband, but a recent NetValue report revealed that the UK is the sick man of Europe when it come to high-speed Internet access, only 2.3 percent of Internet-connected households having broadband.

Jupiter MMXI believes that the UK and Italy will see the most growth in broadband take-up in 2002, but Britain has a long way to go before it reaches Swedish broadband levels, which currently stand at 14 percent.

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

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