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Internet use: An international and inter-provincial comparison

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The adoption and use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) by individuals and businesses in part determines a country's ability to participate sucessfully in the global information economy. As the Internet is an essential component of ICT infrastructure, its use has become a key hallmark of this participation. In order to situate Internet use both geographically and over time, this study compares 2005 and 2007 Canadian use rates with those of other selected countries, as well as among Canadian provinces.

About this article
About the authors

About this article

The 2005 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) asked more than 30,000 Canadians aged 18 years and over about their personal Internet use over a 12-month period. The 2007 CIUS asked approximately 26,500 Canadians aged 16 and over about their Internet use. The inclusion of those aged 16 and 17 in the 2007 survey accounted for almost one percentage point of the overall five percentage point increase in Internet use reported in Canada between 2005 and 2007.

For other countries in this article, data published by Eurostat—the statistical agency of the European Union—are used. Eurostat surveys all member countries using the same questionnaire based on the OECD model. The Eurostat survey covers Internet use for personal or professional purposes. Some members are excluded due to a lack of comparability and/or availability for the years studied. More information on the Eurostat surveys is available.

To compare with Eurostat estimates, figures for Canada refer to individuals aged 18 to 74 in 2005 and 16 to 74 in 2007. Consequently, these estimates will differ from those published elsewhere by Statistics Canada. For example, in 2007 the rate for the total population aged 16 and over was 73% (Statistics Canada 2008), compared with 77% for those aged 16 to 74. Data for Australia come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These data were not available with the 74 years of age cap.

As with most international country comparisons, extending the analysis to more detail beyond a broad level poses challenges due to differences in methodology, collection and data availability. Even at this level, estimates for certain countries could not be furnished. For example, comparable American data are not available and measures from Japan and Korea report individual use rates for those aged 6 years and older. In spite of these limitations, this article provides an overview of how Canadian Internet use rates compare with a number of other countries.


Measuring Internet use

The measurement of Internet use in Canada has evolved with shifting policy interests. Since the commercial launch of the Internet in 1993, policy objectives have included connecting Canadians, promoting broadband, understanding individual online use and the impacts on Canadian society and the economy. The Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) was designed to focus on individual Internet use and more closely conform to international standards; in particular the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) model survey. This focus has spawned new research on impacts of the Internet such as distance learning, health information, and social participation.1 At the same time, this new design allows for Canadian estimates to be more internationally comparable (see About this article).

Factors that influence Internet use

Internet use prevalence in a given country is influenced by a combination of economic, cultural, demographic and geographic factors as well as public policy. For example, income levels combined with price and availability of service play an important part. Culturally, a large portion of Web content has traditionally been dominated by a few languages. Demographically, younger individuals adopt ICTs, including the Internet, more quickly than older members of society. And studies also continue to identify other factors such as education, gender and employment characteristics as significant influences.2

Geographically, Internet use diffused from early adopters, primarily in the academic and scientific communities. Initially, these communities tended to cluster around universities located predominantly in large population centres. In Canada, research has found that residents of small towns and rural areas, irrespective of distance from urban areas, continue to have lower odds of Internet use, controlling for other factors such as age, income and education.3 While geographic factors may play a larger role in countries such as Canada or Australia, this finding also implies that regions with larger rural populations will have lower rates of Internet use.

An international comparison

To compare Canada with other countries, Chart 1 presents rates of individual Internet use from any location during 2005 and 2007. Among those listed in the chart, Scandinavian countries continue to lead, while Canada’s Internet use rates in 2005 (72%) and in 2007 (77%) are similar to that of the United Kingdom and Germany, with Australia closely following.4 Overall, Internet use rates increased in most countries during this period.

Chart 1 Internet use by individuals in the last 12 months from any location, by country, 2005 and 2007

Chart 1
Internet use by individuals in the last 12 months from any location, by country, 2005 and 2007

While most countries experienced little change in their relative position, some reported high rates of growth. For example, the Internet use rate in Greece reached 36% of individuals by 2007. While still comparatively low in 2007, the proportion of Greek users was one-and-a-half times higher than in 2005. Ireland also experienced a high rate of growth, from a 42% use rate in 2005 to 61% in 2007. In countries with higher Internet use rates, there was less room for large growth as usage approaches saturation. The average percentage point increase in Internet use among countries with rates below 60% in 2005 was more than twice that of countries with rates over 60% in 2005.

Some studies have compared broadband connectivity among countries.5 However, as differences are becoming more a matter of degree with the proliferation of bandwidth, Internet use remains a good indicator of digital participation.6 Other studies develop indices of digital participation using several indicators. The framework upon which these studies are based allows for analyses within and across countries over time, as well as the monitoring of penetration of specific ICTs, including the Internet and broadband.7 Finally, comparing specific online behaviours (for example, breadth of activities and intensity of use) across countries is very challenging and often limited to case studies or a small number of countries.8

The provincial dimension

To compare and situate Internet use within Canada, Chart 2 presents provincial rates for 2005 and 2007. It is important to note the effect of location—urban versus rural and small town—on the prevalence of use. For example, while the 2005 Internet use rate in Nova Scotia equaled the national average (72%), it masked the difference between Halifax (79%) and the rest of the province (66%). Halifax is a provincial capital with a concentration of universities and health sciences facilities. With a younger population and relatively more residents having university education and higher incomes than elsewhere in the province, Halifax is an attractive market for Internet service providers.

Chart 2 Internet use by individuals in the last 12 months from any location, by province, 2005 and 2007

Chart 2
Internet use by individuals in the last 12 months from any location, by province, 2005 and 2007

By 2007, three western provinces—Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia—had Internet use rates similar to leading European countries (Charts 1 and 2). The level of Internet use in these provinces was driven by high rates in urban areas, including Saskatoon (86%), Calgary (86%) and Victoria (89%). As with growth among countries, certain provinces with the lowest Internet use rates in 2005, such as Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, experienced the highest growth rates.


The Internet is one of the fastest diffusing ICTs to date.9 The countries observed in Chart 1 had, on average, an 8 percentage point increase in Internet use over the two-year period, testimony to the rapidity by which this technology is diffusing. Countries with the highest rates of individual use in 2005 also reported the highest rates in 2007. Over a longer period of time, differences in Internet use rates should diminish as those countries with very high use rates approach saturation while others continue to experience growth.

Canada reported similar Internet use rates to the United Kingdom and Germany for 2005 and 2007. And like Australia, Canada has a vast landscape with a dispersed population concentrated in urban areas.

In summary, differences in the collection and availability of Internet use data among countries present challenges for making precise comparisons. Future work could extend the comparison to uses of the Internet for specific activities and to the intensity of usage. Such exercises could help provide measures of successful participation in the global information economy.10


Atkinson, R., D. Castro and S. Ezell. 2009. The Digital Road to Recovery: A Stimulus Plan to Create Jobs, Boost Productivity and Revitalize America. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Washington. January.

Atkinson, R., D. Correa and  J. Hedlund. 2008. Explaining International Broadband Leadership. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Washington. May.

Huyer, S., N. Hafkin, H. Ertl and H. Dryburgh. 2005. From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities: Women in the Information Society. Orbicom, Montreal.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 2009. Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index. Geneva.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 2007. Measuring the Information Society 2007. ICT Opportunity Index and World Telecommunications/ICT Indicators, Geneva.

McKeown, L., B. Veenhof and J. Corman. 2008. "Profiling Internet use among workers in the information and communications technologies sector." Innovation Analysis Bulletin. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 88-003-X.  Vol. 10, no. 1. May.

McKeown L., A. Noce and P. Czerny. 2007. "Factors associated with Internet use: Does rurality matter?" Rural and Small Town Canada Analysis Bulletin. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 21-006-X.  Vol. 7, no. 3. September.

McKeown, L. and C. Underhill. 2007. "Learning online: Factors associated with the use of the Internet for education purposes." Education Matters. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 81-004-X.  Vol. 4, no. 4. October.

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Orbicom. 2007. Emerging Development Opportunities:  The Making of Information Societies and ICT Markets.  Orbicom and NRC Press. Montreal.

Orbicom. 2005. From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities:   Measuring Infostates for Development. National Research Council of Canada.

Orbicom. 2003. Monitoring the Digital Divide…and Beyond. National Research Council of Canada.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2004. OECD Information Technology Outlook, 2004. Paris.

Sciadas, G. 2002. “Unveiling the digital divide.” Connectedness Series. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 56F0004M, no. 7.

Statistics Canada. 2008. “Canadian Internet Use Survey.” The Daily. June 12. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-001-X.

Underhill, C. and L. McKeown. 2008. "Getting a second opinion: Health information and the Internet." Health Reports. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-003-X, Vol. 19, no. 1.

Veenhof, B., B. Wellman, C. Quell and B. Hogan. 2008. "How Canadians' use of the Internet affects social life and civic participation." Connectedness Series. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 56F0004M, no. 16.

About the authors

Larry McKeown and Ben Veenhof are with the Science, Innovation and Electronic Information Division at Statistics Canada. For more information about this article, please contact


1. See McKeown and Underhill (2007); Underhill and McKeown (2008); and Veenhof, Wellman, Quell and Hogan. (2008).

2. See OECD (2004); Huyer, Hafkin, Ertl and Dryburgh (2005); and McKeown, Veenhof and Corman (2008).

3. See McKeown, Noce and Czerny (2007). Another recent international comparison found that ‘urbanicity’—the urban population percentage multiplied by the average density of urban areas—is the second most important factor in influencing broadband penetration. (Atkinson, Correa and Hedlund 2008).

4. The Australian rate would be much closer to Canada’s if it was also capped at age 74 since the inclusion of elderly persons accounts in part for the lower figures reported for Australia.

5. Atkinson, Correa and Hedlund (2008) compared American household broadband use with thirty other countries. South Korea and Japan ranked the highest for broadband use on a composite score based on penetration, speed and price. On this same composite, Canada ranked 11th, just ahead of Australia and the United Kingdom, while the United States ranked 15th.

The OECD publishes a variety of broadband statistics (including broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants) at the OECD broadband portal, available at:

6. To illustrate, a Spearman’s rank order correlation coefficient was calculated for the 22 countries common to the comparisons of Internet use (see Chart 1) and broadband penetration (Atkinson, Correa and Hedlund 2008). The 0.87 value implies a very strong, positive correlation between individual Internet use and household broadband penetration.

7. See Orbicom (2003, 2005, 2007); International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2007, 2009).

8. Montagnier and Vickery (2007) compile and analyze data from several sources to make comparisons of online activities and scope of individual Internet use among selected countries.

9. Sciadas (2002) analyzes the diffusion of various ICTs over time in Canada, and found that the diffusion of television occurred even faster than that of the Internet.

10. Atkinson, Castro and Ezell (2009) assert that investments in digital infrastructure lead to higher productivity, increased competitiveness, and improved quality of life in the longer term.