I work out of the corner of my kitchen, in a tiny apartment in a dense neighborhood that was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave. Some of my colleagues at PCMag have decamped from New York City to Chicago, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, taking advantage of this brave, new work-from-home world. I’m not moving, but I can dream.
My pandemic-related real-estate dreaming led first to 15 Affordable Small Towns with Fast Internet, then to 10 Cheap US Cities with Gigabit Internet, and now to The Best Work-From-Home Cities for 2021. In that third article, we spotlight 50 US and 10 Canadian cities based on data from Ookla Speedtest, BroadbandNow, BestPlaces, the US Census, and StatCan, plus the fevered imagination of a man stuck in a corner of his tiny kitchen during a long pandemic. (Ookla is owned by PCMag’s parent company, Ziff Davis.)
The list is quirky, on purpose. We carefully tried to mix large cities, smaller cities, and small towns, with a focus on affordability and high-speed internet access. Fiber broadband became the overwhelming benchmark; though we included some cities with primarily cable ISPs, fiber has the most capacity and most symmetrical connections, and new technologies such as 5G and low-Earth-orbit satellite aren’t going to change that.
Along the way, we found that several of the cities have come up with a crucial solution to the North American internet access and cost crisis: local fiber ISPs. Our top-ranked city, Chattanooga, lands at the top because the city made a conscious decision in 2010 to roll out fiber citywide through its electric company, EPB. Shallotte, NC, also on our list, was wired by the nonprofit ATMC.
Similar organizations are doing this in the Midwest. Our #8 city, Bemidji, MN, has fiber from Paul Bunyan Communications, a nonprofit private cooperative serving the area since 1950. Pittsburg, KS, is on our list because of the Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative, a nonprofit collective in place since the 1950s. The Reedsburg Utility Commission provides fiber in Reedsburg, WI.
And Canada has also caught on. Our #10 Canadian city is Olds, AB, where O-Net is run by a local nonprofit.
Local ISPs don’t have to be publicly owned or nonprofit. Sometimes they’re just local. Vermont Telephone Company has wired up 14 towns in southern Vermont, including two on our list: Pawlet and Springfield. Montour Falls, NY, makes it in thanks to Empire Access, a 100-year-old, family-owned firm.
What all of these companies have in common is commitment to their communities, as much as or more than to shareholders. They see broadband as an essential service, they work closely with residents, and they are dependent on their reputation in their local communities. They aren’t run by far-away executives in big cities. Does Tom Rutledge, the head of Charter Spectrum, have any feeling for the far-flung towns he serves? I don’t know, but I can tell you that Michael Guite, the president of Vermont Telephone, really loves southern Vermont.
And fiber attracts fiber. When a local ISP runs high-speed lines, it doesn’t become a monopoly; instead, it forces the bigger ISPs to step up. Opponents of municipal broadband like to suggest that it discourages investment from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, and Telus, but in fact, it seems to supercharge competition, which can only benefit consumers. Of course, that’s probably what the opponents of municipal broadband are really afraid of.
As we debate how to improve America’s dire digital divide, one of the best things we could do would be to roll back the laws in the 22 states that bar municipal broadband and encourage cooperatives, nonprofits, and community-minded companies to spread the gospel of local fiber. Got any ideas for how to do that? Let me know in the comments.
What else was I reading and writing this week?
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