NEW DELHI: The number of people in rural India who have accessed the Internet at least once in their lives is expected to grow 18% this year to reach 45m, offering new digital opportunities for brands.

According to the new I-Cube report, from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB (Indian Market Research Bureau), the country's rural community currently has 38m such "claimed" users and 31m active users who are online at least once a month.

The IAMAI said the penetration of claimed internet users in rural India is projected to increase from 2.6% in 2010, to 4.6% in 2012. Overall, the penetration of active users will grow from 2.13% to 3.7% over the same period.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said IAMAI President Subho Ray. "In the next two years, a combination of affordable smartphones, optic fiber backbone and local language content is likely to change all projections of internet growth in rural areas."

Community service centres and cybercafes are the main access points in rural areas, with 58% of users visiting such facilities.

Currently, just 12% go online on their mobile phones, but this is expected to change as more and more people acquire smartphones. The number of mobile internet users in the country had increased from 500,000 in 2010 to 3.6m by mid-2012, according to the IAMAI.

Three quarters of rural users go online looking for entertainment – music, videos and photos – while 56% use the web for communications.

Some 39% use the internet for social networking and a third for e-commerce. Online finance was the least used facility at just 13%, although this is expected to double in the future.

Four fifths of rural users also indicated an interest in seeking out information on education, such as school and universities and exam centres.

Data sourced from IAMAI; additional content by Warc staff