The Nielsen/NetRatings report showed that in the United States, people who earned less than $25,000 a year accounted for 6.3 million of the total Internet population in February 2001. That compares with 4.3 million during the same month last year, an increase of 46 percent.
The report showed that the Internet continues to attract a mainstream audience and that the so-called digital divide is starting to narrow with the availability of low-cost personal computers and free Internet service providers.
"If you think how products are introduced in the economy, it starts with the early adopter set," said T.S. Kelly, director of Internet media strategies at NetRatings. "What we're seeing here is the Internet or access to the Internet reaching yet another stage of development."
Kelly projected that the Internet universe will continue to grow despite some free ISPs, such as Freewwweb, ceasing operations and some online companies charging for formerly free services. Earlier this month, BlueLight.com limited customers' free Web access and began charging a fee for additional usage.
Kelly said that with the changes in the free ISP sector the growth of active Net surfers may slow, but it would not necessarily decline into negative percentages.
"We've been seeing healthy growth with those who cannot afford or are not so much interested in (paying for) Internet access," he added.
Kelly said that early Net adopters are typically 18- to 49-year-old males with high incomes and advanced educations who are willing to pay for personal computers and monthly ISP charges. But as the costs of PCs and Web access drop, "the doors have opened for lower-income groups to tap into the Web."
The report also said that the upper-middle-class income group--people who earn between $50,000 and $74,999--increased 42 percent in the past year, making it the largest segment of the online population. In February 2001, there were 30.4 million upper-middle-class people accessing the Web at home, compared with 21.4 million in the same month last year.
The lowest segment of the Internet population has a household income of $150,000 to $999,999. In February of this year, 4.8 million people in that income range accessed the Net, an increase of 28 percent from 3.75 million in the same month of last year.
Kelly said that although some free ISPs have shut down, he doesn't think all such services will disappear "because the number of people they're attracting has been enormous."