IDC (International Data Corporation) expects 215 million people - more than half the population of Western Europe, to be online by 2003.

Use doubled to 81 million in 1999 and the online population of Europe continues to grow. Online spending is set to grow quickly, IDC analysts predict in a new report titled "Internet Usage and Commerce in Western Europe 1998-2003".

Online spending in Western Europe is expected to reach £74.5 billion in 2003, compared to a £6.19 billion in 1999, IDC said in a statement issued yesterday.

Despite this, the majority of the region's Internet users will still not be regular buyers of products and services over the Internet, but IDC expects the percentage of users spending money online to rise to 20 per cent by 2003. Although 15 per cent of users in 1999 made an online purchase at least once every quarter, only 3 per cent did so on a regular basis, which probably reflects a lack of trust in online vendors and purchasing processes, IDC said.

The expected rapid deployment of non-PC Internet access devices will help fuel Internet growth in Western Europe, IDC said. The PC is currently the main Internet access device in Europe, a total of 45 million PCs have been deployed. IDC expects to see this number triple over the next four years with alternative access devices, such as screen phones and set-top boxes providing alternative solutions.

There are variations in Internet usage across Western Europe, the Nordic countries lead the pack with Internet penetration rates between 36 and 45 per cent, IDC said. Other European countries are catching these up rapidly.

Portugal and Greece are seen as the region's laggards, and the two countries are four years behind the European average in Internet usage, IDC reports.