Global Internet usage and e-commerce continues to grow rapidly, claims the United Nations.

The number of Internet users worldwide is expected to reach 655 million by the end of 2002, representing 30 per cent growth over the same period last year, according to the yearly "E-Commerce and Development Report", issued by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The value of goods and services bought and sold over the Internet could reach as high as $2.3 billion this year, a 50 per cent rise from last year, the report said. That number could climb to $3.9 billion at the end of 2003, the report said.

At present growth rates, the report estimates that around 18 per cent of all purchasing by firms and individuals could be done over the Web by 2006.

On the move M-commerce, that is commerce initiated from mobile devices such as cell phones, is forecasted to generate worldwide revenues of almost $50 billion in 2002, with Western Europe and North America leading that market for the next three years. By 2005, sales in the Asia-Pacific region are expected to jump to 40 per cent of total global m-commerce revenue, valued at $225 billion, the UNCTAD said.

There are more people using the network for information gathering, messaging or making purchases in the US than in any other country. Japan, China and Germany followed as the countries with the highest rate of Internet access for its citizens, the report said.

Both India and Latin American showed strong growth in Internet usage. In India, Internet access grew by 27.3 per cent from last year, representing one in 147 of the population, or 7 million people with access. Latin American Internet usage jumped, especially in Brazil (gaining 60 per cent year on year), Mexico (34 per cent) and Chile (22.3 per cent), the report said.

Looking to the "digital divide", the report says that overall Internet usage in Africa has improved, but continues to lag behind the rest of the world. Apart from five African countries (South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco and Tunisia), only one African in 440 had access to the Net said.