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Analysis & Opinion
16.11.11 Russians Storm Cyber Space
By Tai Adelaja

For the first time Russia has overtaken Germany as the market with the largest online audience in Europe, as ever more Russians access the Internet through mobile devices rather than desktop computers. Roughly 50.8 million Russians were using the Internet in September, some 670,000 Internet users more than in Germany, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Internet research company ComScore. France trails behind in third place with 42.3 million Internet users, followed by United Kingdom with 37.2 million.

With relatively low penetration of broadband Internet access constraining Internet usage, especially in rural areas, many Russians have learned to rely on their mobile devices for their online needs, experts say. “This year, the number of mobile Internet users grew by 19 percent,” said Alexei Matrosov, who heads the analytical department at the Moscow-based Broco brokerage. “Thanks to the availability of mobile Internet service in rural areas, for example, Internet penetration has reached 31 percent. In cities with 100,000 inhabitants or more, we are talking about 42 percent Internet penetration.”

But the trend is not quintessentially Russian, experts say. According to various estimates, the number of mobile internet users worldwide should reach 2.1 billion in 2013, overtaking the number of users of fixed Internet. Despite the overall immaturity of the Internet market in Russia, the country's social network Web sites have seen exponential growth in recent months. “The Russian social network VKontakte continued to display the highest average engagement among top properties, with Russians and other Europeans spending 427 minutes (7.1 hours) on the site,” ComScore analysts said in their report.

Russia's Internet population hit 52.9 million this spring – or 46 percent of the population – compared to figures for winter, a survey conducted last month by the Public Opinion Fund, a polling agency, found. The number is set to grow further and should reach 80 million people, or 71 percent of the population by the end of 2014, the pollster said. But since Russia’s online audience is relatively young, experts say, many still use the Internet primarily for communication, while entertainment and business, the main growth drivers in Western countries, come in second. "As soon as broadband becomes more widespread, people will willingly do more business online," said Leonid Delitsyn, an analyst with Finam. "That will be great news for big companies like Yandex or Mail.ru, as well as for smaller companies that could benefit from a spike in investment."

However, despite strong encouragement from Russia's tech-savvy President Dmitry Medvedev, who has vowed never to impose Chinese-style bans on Web sites, there has been little in the form of Internet infrastructure development. "The number of Russians who connect to the Internet using dial-up modems remains very high," said Eldar Murtazin, the chief analyst of the Mobile Research Group. "Two years ago, more than 50 percent of Russians accessed the Internet using a modem, and today the number is only ten percent lower. This is a major problem, especially in small towns." The other issue, Murtazin said, is the choice of Internet resources that Russians love to spend their time on. "In most cases, Russians favor reprints and secondary information over trendy or innovative enquiries," he said.

The latest ComScore report highlighted Internet usage in 49 European markets, and included individual reporting on 18 markets. An analysis of the reports shows that many Europeans accessed the Internet in September looking for jobs, perhaps a reflection of the economic woes currently plaguing the continent. Twenty-eight percent more Internet users visited the “training and education” sub-category, while the number of online job seekers grew 21percent compared to the previous month. Overall, some 373.4 million unique visitors went online in Europe last month, with each spending about 26.4 hours online on average, a 14 percent increase compared to August.

UK residents spend more time online than other Europeans, with an average of 35.6 hours on the Internet per month. The average Internet user in the Netherlands spent 33.4 hours online per month, followed by Turkey, with 32.2 hours. Russia placed 12th, with its citizens spending 22.4 hours per month on visits to Web pages. Search giant Google remains the most popular site in Europe, registering 341.1 million people, or 91 percent of European Internet users, in September. Microsoft came in second with 263.3 million visitors, or 70 percent, followed by the world’s largest social networking site Facebook, which recorded 250 million visits from Europe.
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