GENEVA (Reuters) - The number of Internet users will surpass two billion this year, approaching a third of the world population, but developing countries need to step up access to the vital tool for economic growth, a United Nations agency said on Tuesday.
Users have doubled in the past five years, and compare with an estimated global population of 6.9 billion, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) said.
Of 226 million new Internet users this year, 162 million will be from developing countries where growth rates are now higher, the ITU said in a report.
However, by the end of 2010, 71 percent of the population in developed countries will be online compared with 21 percent of people in developing countries.
The ITU said it was particularly important for developing countries to build up high-speed connections.
"Broadband is the next tipping point, the next truly transformational technology," said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure, of Mali. "It can generate jobs, drive growth and productivity and underpin long-term economic competitiveness."
Access varies widely by region, with 65 percent of people online in Europe, ahead of 55 percent in the Americas, compared with only 9.6 percent of the population in Africa and 21.9 percent in Asia/Pacific, the ITU said.
Access to the Internet in schools, at work and in public places is critical for developing countries, where only 13.5 percent of people have the Internet at home, against 65 percent in developed countries, it said.
A study last week by another U.N. agency showed that mobile phones were a far more important communications technology for people in the poorest developing countries than the Internet.
(Reporting by Jonathan Lynn; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay/ David Stamp)