By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Almost a quarter of the European Union's 500 million people have never used the Internet and there is a widening division between the web-savvy north of Europe and the poorer south and east, figures released on Wednesday showed.
More than half the population of Romania and just under half of those in Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus and Portugal do not have Internet access at home, according to the figures from Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency.
As well as highlighting geographic disparities across one of the world's most-developed regions, the figures underline the lack of opportunity people in poorer communities have to take part in advances such as the Internet that have delivered lower cost goods and service to millions of people.
"For many people today it seems difficult to live without the Internet," Eurostat said.
"However, a decreasing, but still non-negligible, part of the EU population has never used it," it added, reporting that 24 percent of 16-74 year olds across the 27 countries in the European Union have never accessed the Internet.
Although overall Internet access has risen in the past five years, the range is still wide, with just 45 percent of the population connected in Bulgaria compared with 94 percent in the Netherlands.
Others in the top tier include Luxembourg, Sweden and Denmark, all with access rates of 90 percent or above.
At the bottom end of the scale, 54 percent of those in Romania have never used the Internet, whether via home access, at an Internet cafe or over a smart phone.
Those countries with the lowest usage rates also tend to be those with the least number of fixed-line broadband connections and those that make least use of e-commerce -- buying goods and services online.
Online business is most advanced in Britain, Denmark and Sweden where it contributed between 5.8 percent and 7.2 percent of total gross domestic product in 2009, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
Britain, the EU's third largest economy after Germany and France, has become the dominant force in online commerce and government services, with more than 80 percent of 16-74 year olds making Internet purchases in the past year.
The lowest rates were again recorded in Romania and Bulgaria, with just 13 percent of those surveyed.
Perhaps one of the survey's more surprising results was that Spain, a modern economy at the heart of Europe, has a relatively modest rate of Internet access and e-commerce use: just 64 percent of households are connected and only 39 percent of people shop online, the figures showed.
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(Reporting By Claire Davenport; editing by Luke Baker)