The Midlands is now in the fast lane towards a high-speed digital future, according to BT, as it neared its target of connecting its five millionth broadband customer.

The company revealed that 363,000 homes and businesses in the West Midlands region had connected up to its broadband services.

It is poised to pass the five million target in the next few days, a year earlier than a target set by the company.

Prime Minister Tony Blair heralded the milestone, which he said was of "vital importance" to the country.

Broadband is now one of the fastest growing consumer products of all time, with a higher take up rate than televisions, CD players or mobile phones.

More than 95 per cent of homes and businesses in the UK are now connected to broadband-enabled exchanges and the figure will rise to 99.6 per cent by the summer.

The 363,000 West Midlands customers include 65,000 broadband users in Hereford and Worcester, 31,000 in Shropshire, 80,000 in Staffordshire, and 51,000 in Warwickshire.

In the West Midlands there were 136,000 broadband users.

Frank Mills, BT regional director for the West Midlands, said: "This region is now in the fast lane towards a high-speed digital future.

"By this summer, BT will have brought broadband to exchanges serving virtually all households and businesses in the region (99.7 per cent), which is tremendous news for the people living and working here. But the journey's not over.

"There are challenges still ahead. We've to build on the progress already achieved and ensure everyone in the region is logging on and unlocking the potential of broadband communications, which offer people a wealth of business, entertainment, leisure and education opportunities."

Mr Mills paid tribute to the hundreds of people in scores of local campaigns whose enthusiasm had speeded the arrival of broadband to their communities.

He said: "They all had the vision to join broadband partnerships like the Power of Broadband, Switch on Shropshire, and CW2000, to stimulate awareness of the benefits of ICT and broadband.

"They have generated interest and encourage more individuals and businesses to get on and reap the benefits of b r o a d b a n d - d r i v e n applications."

BT's £1.5 billion national investment programme has now equipped 356 out of the West Midlands region's 439 exchanges with broadband. They serve 2,400,000 - 98.1 per cent - of the region's premises.

Fifty-nine more exchanges are to be upgraded by the end of July this year, bringing broadband potential to 2,450,000 customers or 99.7 per cent of premises.

BT said the last million connections had come in just four months - one new customer every ten seconds.