Web users with fast broadband connections have finally muscled aside dial-up users to form a majority of the American Internet population, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.

For the first time last month, the New York-based market research firm found that more people used high-speed Internet connections from home (mostly cable-modem or digital subscriber lines) than dial-up lines. Some 63 million folks logged on from broadband connections at home in July, representing 51 percent of all U.S. Internet users -- up from the 38 percent share that broadband had one year earlier. Only 61.3 million people were using dial-up lines last month, Nielsen found.

"We are reaching a tipping point now with broadband," said Marc Ryan, senior director and analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings. "That means people building content for the Internet will increasingly be creating systems and applications to take advantage of it."

Ryan said broadband usage grew steadily all year, fueled by discounting from Internet service providers. Cable companies still lead the phone companies in the race to sign up broadband subscribers, but phone companies have been adding to their DSL services' subscriber totals at higher rates and are now starting to catch up.

Debate continues over the relatively slow broadband adoption rates in the United States, which have lagged behind those in South Korea and Japan. While many Americans have high-speed links at work, the wiring of U.S. residential areas for broadband has been carried out at a plodding pace.

Nielsen's finding that home broadband users now form a majority drew skepticism from analysts who questioned whether the firm had undercounted dial-up users. But Ryan said that was not likely. He said Nielsen/NetRatings derives its data from a panel of tens of thousands of Internet users who mirror the overall U.S. Internet population; all were recruited by the same random telephone dialing methods employed for Nielsen's TV ratings.

It's worth noting, however, that a majority of Americans still aren't logging on at all. The total of 124.3 million Americans the firm identified as going online at home in July is less than 45 percent of the country's total population of 293 million.

Real Bites Into Apple

The rivalry between RealNetworks and Apple Computer ratcheted up several notches last week as RealNetworks began a half-price music sale and launched a nationwide publicity campaign to say that its music software now works with Apple's iPod music player. The Seattle company slashed the price on most Internet song downloads from 99 cents to 49 cents, with most albums going from $9.99 to $4.99. Real said the discounts would likely last through Labor Day.

Apple has described Real's new Harmony software, which makes songs purchased in its store iPod-compatible, as tantamount to computer hacking; chief executive Steve Jobs had resisted overtures from RealNetworks to license Apple's proprietary music format for the iPod, so Real deciphered this format and wrote its own software instead.

Until Harmony's July 26 release, the only major Internet music store compatible with the iPod was Apple's. Harmony also allows purchased songs from Real's store to be transferred to more than 100 other music players, Real says.

If Apple does carry out on its suggestion that it will tweak the iPod's software to make it incompatible with the new RealPlayer, Real customers will have one other option: burning their purchases as audio CDs, then copying them back to a computer in MP3 format, which an iPod will play without complaint.

www.real.com

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.