NetRatings: Internet Is 75% Full; comScore: They're Full Of It

How big is the Internet? The answer to that question, apparently, depends on whom you ask. According to estimates released Thursday by Nielsen//NetRatings, about 75 percent of the U.S. population now has access to the Internet from home.

That's up from 66 percent a year ago (February 2004 vs. February 2003) and gives the Internet a higher penetration than some other more established media, and ones that take a considerably higher share of U.S. ad spending. It also gives the Web a higher penetration than what some other experts would place it at. In February, industry stats-keeper eMarketer estimated the Internet's penetration had reached 67.9 percent of U.S. households, giving it more reach cable TV (65.8 percent), if satellite TV providers were excluded from the equation.

A nationwide telephone survey conducted by Harris Interactive in December 2003 estimated that 69 percent of the adult U.S. population now has Internet access from home, work, school, a library or another location.

To some degree, these researchers have been calculating different things and in different ways, but the lack of an industry consensus is causing some sources to wonder about the veracity of the numbers altogether. In TV, where there is only one accepted source for the medium's universe estimates - Nielsen Media Research - there is never any debate over size. Nielsen's estimates effectively serve to calibrate the dimensions of the TV universe. With no accepted standard in cyberspace, a debate is raging on, not simply over how big the Web is, but over its demographic composition.

That debate was fueled this week when Nielsen//NetRatings' arch rival comScore Networks accused Nielsen//NetRatings of distorted estimates. Such accusations from research rivals is not unusual, but comScore has drawn on an ironic, but seemingly tenuous claim, that the problems Nielsen Media Research has been experiencing with its national TV ratings sample and methods related to measuring the TV usage of young adults - specifically adults 18-34 - may somehow have a connection to some questionable estimates Nielsen//NetRatings has come up with for Internet usage among the same demographic.

Just how and why that connection would be made was not clear from comScore's allegations. comScore executives suggested that it might somehow be a connection between Nielsen's TV ratings panel and Nielsen//NetRatings Internet panel. Nielsen executives denied there is any connection between the two samples. Nielsen owns a controlling stake in NetRatings.

Nonetheless, Magid Abraham, CEO-comScore Networks, Thursday said "It's a highly suspicious coincidence that [Nielsen//NetRatings] came out with a new report following" comScore's allegations, suggesting that Nielsen//NetRatings might be seeking to take the focus off questions surrounding its sample and online audience estimates.

In fact, Kenneth Cassar, director of strategic analysis at Nielsen//NetRatings, described the nine percent surge over the past year in Nielsen//NetRatings U.S. Internet penetration estimates a surprise. "In just a handful of years, online access has managed to gain the type of traction that took other mediums decades to achieve," he stated.

Cassar, who admitted he was once skeptical of the Internet's ability to hit the kind of penetration numbers held by TV and cable because it was originally thought of as a utility-driven medium, now says, "there is no reason not to believe that the Internet will rival penetration in TV and cable."

With broadband penetration where it is now," he adds, "and with applications so engaging and so essential to living one's life, it's difficult to say the Internet is a purely utility-driven medium." Cassar notes that everything from entertainment to commerce to business applications have all become essential uses of the Internet's resources.

Nielsen//NetRatings Internet Access Penetration (U.S., Home)

 
Persons (2+) Total Persons Internet
With Web Access (2+) In U.S. Penetration
Population 204,307,000 272,810,000 74.9%

Source: Nielsen//NetRatings Enumeration Study, February 2004. Total persons in the U.S. represents the number of people aged two and over, living in households equipped with a fixed line phone and is based on 2004 projections derived from the 2000 Census estimates. Internet access penetration is defined as the percent of people aged two and over living in households equipped with a fixed line phone, who have home access to the Internet, though not necessarily logging online during a specific timeframe.
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