The most striking New Zealand statistic in a study of international internet use published yesterday is arguably the 35% of users here still on dial-up modems.
This is the second-largest proportion of narrowband users in all the 30 countries surveyed in 2007 by the World Internet Project, based at the University of Southern California.
Only Colombia has a larger percentage of dial-up users, at 44%
The project, hosted locally by AUT, aims to take the pulse of internet use yearly or in some countries two-yearly, focussing on the social, political and economic impact of the internet and related computer technologies.
Many commentators question whether private individuals really need broadband for most of their daily activities online, says Professor Jeffrey Cole, the project’s international director.
“But [the advantage] is not the bandwidth; it’s the ‘always on’ factor.” The fact that people can go to the internet at any time, without the trouble of establishing and terminating a connection means they use it more often and their usage patterns change from longer sessions to short, frequent interactions.
But as with all innovations, it takes time for users and decision-makers in government and industry to realise the advantages, he says.
”It wasn’t so long ago that Helen Coonan, Communications Minister in the previous Australian government said only [music and video] pirates and pornographers would need more than 1 Mbit/s,” Cole says.
Significantly one of the first changes implemented by Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was to rename the communications ministry the ministry for “broadband, communications and the digital economy”.
Use of the internet at work appears to have increased productivity for many, Cole says, with some respondents reporting “I can now do in 30 hours what I used to do in 40”.
This goes against the expectation of many employers that online access at work would prove a distraction. However, the caveat with this is that people are able to work more from home and do.
Employers talk about the time lost from their employees “doing personal things at work”, but the World Internet Project and other surveys indicate that for every hour lost this way, employees spend three hours doing “work” tasks from home.
Respondents say internet access has not lessened and in many cases has slightly increased their contact with friends and family, but asked about “face-to-face contact” many report this had dropped.
A large percentage of individuals in most countries surveyed do at least some internet banking (only 29% of New Zealanders say they have never banked online).
Entertainment has yet to show up as a significant influence; “watched a video on the internet” clocks up only a few percent in most countries. Nevertheless, “in every country we surveyed, internet users watch less TV than non-internet users,” Cole says. Internet access to news has helped a worldwide decline of newspaper readership.
Perhaps surprisingly very few people say they read blogs. Journalists, on the other hand do read them, so the more significant or controversial comments of bloggers probably still works its way into public discourse, Cole suggests
By far most frequent use for online access is fact-checking, whether for work, personal interest of “to settle a bet”, he says.
The percentage of people accessing the internet through a device other than a PC shows a steady rise internationally. “When Africans come online in large numbers it won’t be with PCs,” he says.
African trends represent “the big hole” in the world survey’s figures to date (it’s been running for eight years). The project has not been able to survey any African countries because it relies to a large extent on local sponsorship.