There is no question that English-speaking countries dominate the Internet and that the Asian region has been a laggard in its embrace of the World Wide Web. Asian governments have been dubious about opening up the floodgates to Internet content, and in many countries a roll out of broadband infrastructure has been blocked by telecommunications monopolies worried about erosion of their rate base. Until recently, Hong Kong was the exception in combining low-cost broadband and dial-up access, an active community of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and unrestricted access to the Web. However, a combination of drastic cost reductions and pro-Internet government policy is driving an Internet explosion on the mainland, in Japan and in South Korea. In China, the number of users has increased 54-fold in the past five years, to 33.7 million from 620,000 in 1997. If the 4.3 million Chinese-language users in Hong Kong, 11.6 million Taiwanese, and 2.3 million Singaporeans are added in, the Chinese-language user base is 55.5 million, according to the webmetric service, Global Reach. In Japan, after a breakthrough in the cost of Internet connections two years ago, the number of users has soared to 46.2 million, with rises of 68.4 per cent last year and 41.6 per cent through February this year, Japanese magazine Impress says. In Korea, where 100 per cent of schools have broadband access to the Internet and the government is paying for housewives to learn Web-surfing techniques, the numbers are much smaller, with 25.2 million users. Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong have some of the highest household 'penetration' rates in the world, with Japan at 62.4 per cent, Hong Kong at 58.4 per cent, and Korea at 57.6 per cent. The mainland, with its enormous population, has a relatively low 5.4 per cent household penetration rate but Internet access is rapidly evolving beyond an urban elite and expanding to a much broader social stratum. 'The Chinese government has from an early stage recognised that the Internet is a great leveller and that if properly harnessed is a way for China to catch up or play leap-frog,' Stephen Yap, director of market researcher NFO WorldGroup, said. While the high cost of Internet connections still holds back many would-be Chinese Web surfers, Mr Yap says usage patterns are changing rapidly and 'all social levels are beginning to go on-line'. In Japan, high-speed Internet access costs about US$20 a month, compared to US$70 per month in New York. According to Jun Murai, a computer scientist at Keio University and the architect of Japan's original Internet backbone system, the growth in the number of users has driven an expansion in Japanese-language content on the Web as well. 'Users don't have any difficulty finding information in Japanese these days compared to several years ago,' he said. Increasingly, outbound Japanese and Korean-language broadcasts, such as streaming video Webcasts of television dramas, far outweigh English-language inbound traffic. In recent weeks, Korea and Japan both announced plans to become regional or global Internet hubs, using their broadband networks to dominate the new service industry forming around high bandwidth transmission. Japan has founded an information technology strategy headquarters under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi with plans to build broadband infrastructure domestically and across Asia. Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication recently said it planned to transform the nation into a 'digital hub of Northeast Asia', and Seoul was putting 80 billion won (about HK$517.84 million) behind a plan to upgrade the quality of broadband Internet access. In Beijing last week, according to the mainland news media, Premier Zhu Rongji, Vice-President and heir apparent Hu Jintao and others approved a State Development Planning Commission programme to encourage greater use of the Internet within the government, echoing programmes in Japan, Korea and elsewhere to promote e-government. Underlying the rhetoric is old-fashioned industrial policy aimed at expanding the market for technology and services related to video streaming and wireless communications, which will provide a boost to the flagship Japanese, Korean and Chinese consumer electronics companies. But there is more to the competition than who has the largest fibre-optic or wireless network and market base. Culture will also play a role if the concept of an Internet hub has a chance of becoming a reality. The excitement of the Internet, and its rapid evolution, are driven by its ability to cut across national and linguistic barriers, to do business electronically as well as to learn and have fun. In the cultural arena, despite lagging behind Japan and Korea in the roll-out of broadband infrastructure, China could emerge the winner. Surveys from two government research institutes explains why China has an edge. In a survey conducted last year, Japan's Shin Joho Centre found that 96 per cent of Japanese users visited Japanese-language only sites. The comparable figure for China, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was 60 per cent, so that 40 per cent were making use of overseas Chinese or foreign-language sites. Japanese users turned to the Internet primarily for entertainment. By contrast, Chinese used the Internet for the acquisition of knowledge with 42.7 per cent of Chinese users looking to the Internet for news, compared with 3 per cent in Japan. What such indicators mean is the Chinese have more of an appetite than Japanese for non-Chinese content on the Web, and can manage that content more easily. It also means the mainland's stop-go policy towards monitoring and control of content works against the broader trend of Internet policy in China and is a self-imposed handicap. Yet demand for the Internet is so huge barriers are readily swept away. For example, early on Beijing attempted to require users to register with their local police officers when they signed on with Internet service providers. The ISPs responded by bundling new applications and handling the police registrations themselves on behalf of new customers, who then lost their reticence. Observers say last week's decision to temporarily close 154,000 un-registered Internet cafes and freeze registration of new ones, after a destructive fire on June 16 killed 25 people, is little more than 'arcade control'. BDA (China) managing director Ted Dean said: 'If you come back to that story in three months, there will be almost no impact on the Internet cafe industry, and no impact on individual access. 'China as a government has realised that it has crossed a threshold. There was a key moment when people realised that this was the next mass media,' he said. Even efforts to block domestic and international sites go unnoticed by most users, and in any case, are easy to circumvent through the use of proxy servers.