Fifty-four percent of Americans were connected to the internet as of September 2001, according to new US government data due for release tomorrow.

According to the Commerce Department, 143 million US citizens, or 54% of the population, were online by last fall, a year-on-year increase of 26%. The government data is more bullish than most privately-published surveys such as Nielsen/NetRatings which estimated internet usage at 115.2 million in October, up just 15% from a year ago.

Americans flocked to join the internet at the rate of around two million per month in 2001, says the report, confounding concerns that the decimation of dotcom businesses would slow web growth. Email still tops the poll of favorite online activities, with 45% of all Americans using it on a regular basis – up from 35% in 2000.

Sixty-six percent of the population – 174 million people – were using home computers as at September, with 48 m of these aged between five and seventeen years – ninety percent of that age segment.

Furthermore, the so-called digital divide – the gap separating the internet from the nation’s poorest citizens – has stared to narrow. This supports the argument advanced by many sociologists that computer and internet skills are now becoming essential across a broad spectrum of jobs.

Between December 1998 and September 2001, web usage by those earning less than $15,000 per household – deemed the poorest economic segment – grew at an annual rate of 25%. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those households earning more than $75,000 a year per grew at an annual rate of only 11%.

Other low-usage areas also experienced higher than average growth. Between August 2000 and September 2001, surfing among blacks and Hispanics soared at annual rates of 33% and 30%, respectively, dwarfing the 20% of online debutantes among whites and Asian-Americans. Rural residents rose at an annual rate of 24% with 53% of these now online, only marginally below the national average of 54%.

News source: Wall Street Journal