Professor Jeffrey Cole, director of the World Internet Project (WIP) survey, visiting New Zealand from the US, praises this country for having the highest penetration rate of internet connection among the more than 30 countries surveyed by the organisation.

According to WIP figures first published last year, 86 percent of the New Zealand population is connected to the internet in some way, compared with 82 percent in the US, he told a meeting organised by InternetNZ in Wellington this month.

However, Laurence Millar, chairman of the 2020 Communications Trust, challenged Cole from the floor of the meeting.

The Trust's own experience, from running the Computers in Homes programme, is that there is a huge population of "disconnected" people, he said. The WIP figures for New Zealand were collected by the Auckland University of Technology through a phone survey, which would not have found such people, precisely because they are disconnected, Millar told Computerworld.

He cites the decrease in the percentage of Maori showing up in successive AUT/WIP surveys in 2007, 2009 and 2011, when the proportion of the population identifying as Maori increased over that time.

This is despite the fact that the survey included a "booster sample" made up specifically of Maori, as well as samples of Pasifika and Asian people and 12-to-15-year-olds.

"The headline numbers [of internet users] are going up, but the disconnected are outside that," says Millar. "The story is very positive for those who are connected, but our work shows that there is a large percentage of the population still not connected and not able to be connected."

Cole responds that "while not everyone can afford a PC on their desk, we believe that between computer cafes, school, work and libraries, that you are very, very close to just about everybody who wants to be online being online -- though not necessarily from their preferred location and not necessarily through broadband."

"We have to disagree," says Millar.

Though figures might indicate the proportion of people online is levelling off, "we think the plateau is temporary", Cole says.

In another 20 years, he predicts, 98 percent of the New Zealand population will be online -- not just through increasing perception of value in internet connection, but largely through older non-users dying.

There are a very small percentage of people who stop regular internet use for unavoidable reasons -- for example their internet device breaks and they can't afford a replacement -- but overall "in spite of spyware and spam, nobody wants to give up the internet," Cole says.

Cole sees the internet radically changing commercial and other transactions. While a car buyer used to negotiate the price downward from the sticker on the windscreen, they now find out the wholesale price online and negotiate upwards from that, he says. Many patients will go into the doctor's surgery armed with online research and a proposal as to what condition they may have.

Studies have estimated that thanks to the internet, what was 40 hours' office work can now be done in 30 hours, Cole says -- but few employers have instituted 30-hour work-weeks.