America is a wired world after all, according to the Census.

Bureau figures show that more Americans than ever before are getting connected to the Internet, mainly to satiate a growing demand for faster communication.

About 42 percent of all U.S. households could log on to the Web in 2000, up from 18 percent three years earlier, according to the report released Thursday.

People shop, check stock quotes and do research online. But it is the desire for speedy communication that has made Internet access a "must-have" item for many people, said Susannah Fox, research director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

"E-mailing and instant messaging ... have been woven into Americans' social lives," said Fox, whose group tracks Internet usage and habits.

Nearly one-third of all adults 18 and older and one-fifth of all kids 3 to 17 use e-mail, the census survey found.

More children than ever before are growing up in homes with computers, the census report said. Nearly two-thirds of all kids between ages 3 and 17 lived in homes with computers, and nearly one-third of kids in that age range have gone online.

"Having a computer is no longer an oddity," said bureau analyst Eric Newburger.

Over half of the country's 105 million households had computers, the first time that percentage has been over 50 percent since the bureau started keeping track of such figures in 1984. Computers were in 8 percent of households that year.

Gaps still existed among different socioeconomic groups. Older Americans and families with smaller incomes were less likely to have computers.

Among children, however, discrepancies were erased by the availability of computers in most schools. Nearly 90 percent of all school-age kids — age 6 to 17 — had access to computers either at home or at school.

Among those with Internet access at home, 73 percent of kids age 3 to 17, and 88 percent of adults 18 and older, used it for e-mail.

Among children, the next most popular use was for school research (68 percent), followed by more generic information searches (33 percent) and news, weather or sports (20 percent).

Among adults, 64 percent used the Internet for information searches, and 53 percent to get news, weather or sports updates. Forty percent used it to shop or pay bills.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the average retail price for a personal computer today is about $950, down from $1,450 in 1997.

The census figures are from a survey taken in August 2000 separate from last year's head count. The bureau began tracking households with computers in 1984, and started tracking Internet usage in 1997.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.