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Just a decade ago, only half of Utah homes were connected to the Internet. Now, eight of 10 are — which moves Utah into the top spot among the states.

That's according to a Commerce Department report released Wednesday entitled, "Exploring the Digital Nation — Computer and Internet Use at Home," using survey data by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Academics and officials say Utah may be No. 1 because it has the nation's youngest average age, and youth demand and use the Internet more than older people. Also, Utah's population is concentrated along the Wasatch Front where the Internet is easily accessible. And Utah has a tradition of high-tech companies that may have made Internet use more common here early.

The new report says that 79.7 percent of Utah homes are now connected to high-speed broadband Internet, and another 2.6 percent have slower dial-up service — for a total of 82.3 percent connected to the Internet.

Nationally, 68 percent of homes have broadband connections and another 3 percent have dial-up.

No. 2 behind Utah is New Hampshire, where 77.8 percent of homes have broadband and 3.2 percent have dial-up. Lowest in the nation is Mississippi, where 51.7 percent have broadband and 6 percent have dial-up.

In 2009, Utah ranked No. 3 in the nation for Internet use but has now moved into the top spot.

"We have the youngest average age in the nation, and youth are early adopters of the Internet," said University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich.

"It's really generational. Cost is not so much an issue anymore, it's whether people want it — especially as the Internet gets bundled in with all these other digital things," and youth can't imagine doing school work without it, Perlich said.

Ray Child, spokesman for Comcast, an Internet provider, said the Internet now "is integral to how we experience entertainment, including programming content and how we connect with friends." He said most Utah homes have several Internet-enabled devices from the iPad to iPhone, tablets and computers to watch movies or TV shows, play video games or communicate via Facebook.

Perlich says such things are more popular among the young, and Utah has many of them. "Internet usage among those age 65 and older is not as high. Grandma's generation may send a Christmas card," and be confused when youth are talking mention using the Cloud or Googledocs, she said.

Utah State Demographer Juliette Tennert said the new findings are "consistent with a Utah population that is very tech savvy. Our youth influences this."

Perlich said another factor is that most of Utah's population lives along the urban Wasatch Front. "We are maybe the most urbanized state in the nation. The Internet is easily accessible there," with broadband fibers running throughout neighborhoods.

The new report backs that idea. It said that 70 percent of the nation's urban population has broadband service, while only 57 percent of rural residents do.

Tennert said another reason for the state's high ranking may be that "Utah has long been known as a hotbed of innovations. Technology companies are an important part of our economy and tech startups are many — the number of startups coming out of the U. rival MIT."

In fact, the University of Utah was part of a small four-university computer network — with UCLA, Stanford and the University of California-Santa Barbara — that was an early precursor of the Internet. Perlich added that Utah has many major universities, and has long been the home of many high-tech companies — so it may have made the Internet more important and common.

Flemming Jensen, spokesman for CenturyLink, another Internet provider, said, "One of the primary movers of the Internet here is a highly educated customer base here in Utah with universities and high-tech companies that move into the area."

He adds that his company is seeking to make the Internet more affordable to low-income people, providing a new basic Internet service and offering basic computers at low-cost — along with free training on how to use the Internet.

The new study said that nationally, the most important reasons that homes without the Internet gave for not subscribing include: lack of need or interest (47 percent); lack of affordability (24 percent); and inadequate computer (15 percent).

The new report also says Utah has the highest rate in the nation of homes with computers — 86.7 percent. Mississippi was the lowest at 67.5 percent. It said computers are still the principal way to access the Internet — although access is growing by other devices ranging from cellphones to tablets.