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The number of subscribers to Internet service providers in Japan soared 44.6 percent from a year earlier to 16.88 million as of March 31, a private research institute said Wednesday.

MultiMedia Research Institute Inc. attributed the phenomenon to a surge in shipments of personal computers and a drop in access fees.

By service, @nifty, affiliated with Fujitsu Ltd., remained at the top with 21.9 percent of total subscriptions, followed by Biglobe of NEC Corp., with 17.7 percent. Their rankings were unchanged from March 31, 1999.

OCN of NTT Communications Corp. beat So-net of the Sony Corp. group for third place, with a 6.5 percent share. So-net came fourth with 5.2 percent.

Services provided by long-distance telecommunications carriers, such as Japan Telecom Co.’s ODN and DDI Corp.’s DION, particularly gained because of their relatively low fees and the way they charge them in a package with ordinary phone fees, the institute said.