The Washington region is the most wired area in the country, according to a new study that says just shy of 60 percent of the adults here are hooked up to the Internet.

The emergence of metropolitan Washington as a center of the technology industry has been apparent for years. But the study, to be released tomorrow, indicates that the worldwide computer network also has become entwined in the region's culture, used by an increasing number of people to communicate, perform research and buy goods and services.

"The world is ushering in the Internet Century, and Washington is really at the epicenter of this change," said Steve Case, chief executive of America Online Inc., the largest of a cluster of online technology companies in Northern Virginia. "And while this is being fueled by technology, the big changes to watch are how this medium becomes embedded in everyday lives and starts changing our society and economy."

Scarborough Research of New York, a service of the Arbitron Co., surveyed 170,000 adults in 64 major markets from February 1998 to February 1999. The researchers found it to be especially significant that five areas were at or above the halfway mark, meaning Internet use has entered the mainstream of society there.

The study found that 59.9 percent of Washington area adults were online. The San Francisco area, which includes the tech hot spot Silicon Valley, was next at 56.1 percent, followed by Austin, with 55.5 percent; Seattle, at 53.3 percent; and Salt Lake City, at 50 percent.

"There's a critical mass that any medium needs before it is mainstream," said John Timberlake, senior vice president at Scarborough.

The study used the Nielsen Media Research definition of a Designated Market Area (DMA), so the Washington region includes surrounding areas in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Observers suggest several explanations for why Washingtonians, whether at home or at work, are the most wired. One is the close to 3,000 technology companies, whose approximately 250,000 workers not only are online but, consciously or not, proselytize their friends and families to get online, too.

"You have people here who think and breathe the online networks, and that spreads," said Mario Morino, a former software executive who now is a technology investor and philanthropist through the Morino Institute.

Washington's heritage as a government town also is key because the Internet is a home-grown product, the creation of the federal government in 1969, and many agencies were early adopters. And the area has the highly educated and wealthy people who, studies show, are most likely to go online. Washington has the highest proportion of college-educated adults among all the major DMAs, with 61 percent of adults having attended college and 36 percent of those age 25 or older holding college degrees, Scarborough said.

There's also the white-collar nature of the jobs those well-compensated workers hold, and all the time they spend sitting in computer-equipped offices.

Washington also is the wealthiest of all the major marketing areas, with an after-tax average household income of $56,672, 29 percent above the U.S. average.

In the District, however, the heart of the region, where the gap between rich and poor remains one of the widest in the country, community leaders, educators and some technology officials have grown increasingly concerned about the "digital divide" between the Internet haves and have-nots. A conference on the issue, "Resolving the Digital Divide: Information, Access and Opportunity," is to be held Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit group that conducts research on topics concerning minorities.

Some suggest another reason why, despite the poverty at its core, the Washington area embraced the Internet so strongly. The inside-the-Beltway world always has lived on information, what Internet people call "content." The droves of lawyers, policymakers, journalists and trade association workers love details, debate and data.

"Being wired here is not a luxury, it's a prerequisite," said Mark Warner, who traverses the worlds of technology and policy as a high-tech investor and former Virginia candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Warner said that not long ago, ambitious young people flocked to Washington to change the world on Capitol Hill. Now, he said, they're coming to launch technology start-ups.

"This town runs on information," echoed Jeff Keeler, 33, a lobbyist with Enron Corp. He uses the Internet to research policy issues for work. But he also uses it for play. Keeler and his wife, Marietta Lee, 29, a producer for CBS, send baby pictures of 13-month-old Cashen to their relatives and friends. They also bought Cashen's bright-red baby jogger online.

Lawyer Donna Fenton, 29, said she lives on the Internet at work. It's easier to send notes and attachments by e-mail than to play voice-mail tag. "That's the only way we communicate with clients anymore," she said.

Bob Osberger, 40, of Washington, who works for the Securities and Exchange Commission, is on AOL at home, looking at news and business reports and talking to friends, or as he said, "socializing." His government account, he said, is strictly for work.

"I use [AOL] as my extended phone," he said.

His friend Scott Sutherland, 37, a self-employed communications consultant who works from home, uses a single account for work and play. "The first thing I did this morning was check my e-mail," he said.

Lauren Henkin, 24, of Washington, has been online for four years. She searches the Internet for information about musicians and authors she might include in the public programs she arranges at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She also has found a place to live through an online ad, receives dinner party invitations through e-mail and shops and searches for travel bargains online. "The privacy of it is what I like," Henkin said. "I don't like to talk to someone who's trying to sell me something."

She can't think of one of her friends who's not online.

Then there is Sisay Birke, a member of the 40 percent who aren't online. Birke is an Arlington resident who manages a 7-Eleven store in Cleveland Park. "I don't have any access here [in the store] or a computer at home," said Birke, 33, who has delayed buying a computer because of possible Y2K problems.

But he's part of the next wave. "In year 2000 I'll get online," he vowed.

The Top U.S. Markets for Internet Penetration

1)Washington, D.C. 59.9%

2)San Francisco 56.1

3)Austin 55.5

4)Seattle/Tacoma, Wash. 53.3

5)Salt Lake City 50.0

6)Dallas/Fort Worth 49.6

7)Denver 49.0

8)Houston 48.8

9)Los Angeles 48.7

10)Norfolk/Newport News 48.5

13)Sacramento/Stockton 46.3

15)Boston 46.0

17)Baltimore 45.7

22)Chicago 44.8

23)New York 43.7

SOURCE: Scarborough Research