With most of the U.S. technology industry focused on the East and West coasts, you'd think the best place to get online would be San Francisco, or perhaps New York City. But Atlanta tops Forbes.com's survey of America's most wired cities.
While Georgia may be best known for hot weather, college football and peaches, Atlanta is no slouch when it comes to technology and the Internet. Home to telecommunications and Internet service providers BellSouth and EarthLink, as well as Cox Communications, the third-largest U.S. cable company, Atlanta beat several cities more closely associated with the Web, like San Francisco, Seattle and New York.
Our rankings factored in the percentage of Internet users with high-speed access, the range of service providers within a city and the availability of public wireless hot spots. Of the 30 cities we measured, Atlanta ranks highest in broadband access options, third in Wi-Fi access points and ninth in broadband adoption: In June, more than 80 percent of the city's home Internet users accessed the Web via a high-speed connection.
In Atlanta's case, suburban sprawl helped goose its rankings: The vast majority of the metropolitan area's population lives outside the city limits, which aren't measured in our provider variety and wireless hot spot data, leaving a smaller sample size for Atlanta's commerce-heavy — and very wired — downtown.
San Francisco, with Internet titans ranging from Cisco Systems to Yahoo! in its back yard, finished a respectable fourth, despite having the most public wireless hot spots per person. New York finished 12th, held back by the less densely populated boroughs of Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx; still, the U.S. media and finance capital ranked second in broadband adoption rates.
Just being connected alone isn't enough to make a winner: Boston, tops in broadband adoption, ranked 13th overall because it has less provider options and fewer available Wi-Fi hot spots than other cities. Other surprises include second-place Orlando, Fla., associated more with Disney than with downloads, and fifth-place finisher Raleigh, N.C.
Atlanta's success is no shock to Abe Kani, who became the city's first chief information officer in 2003. Kani says one of his main goals after taking office was to boost the prominence of information technology in town. Atlanta, like many major U.S. cities, is planning a citywide wireless network, aiming to bring free or affordable Internet access to all residents and small businesses, with trial stages in early 2007. The network will also double as a resource for city workers and emergency personnel. "Information is everything," Kani says. "We have so many employees of the city, including firemen and policemen, outside of buildings, delivering services. They have to have information."
But residents of wired cities don't need to wait for the government to give them wireless access: Wi-Fi spots are increasingly standard throughout American Internet culture, from cafés to hotels that cater to business travelers. At San Francisco hot spot Ritual Coffee Roasters, half the lunchtime crowd can be seen poking away at laptop keyboards, says co-owner Jeremy Tooker. When the café first offered wireless access, Web entrepreneurs showed up in droves, holding meetings or coding sessions for hours. (See "Eating Out 2.0.") "It's still a big draw," Tooker says, noting that the café now has a "no laptop power cords" policy on weekends to keep tables rotating faster — when your battery is dead, your time is up.
Internet search engine giant Google unveiled a free Wi-Fi network in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., on Aug. 16, but most Americans still get their Internet access from telephone or cable companies. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 42 percent of American adults had high-speed Internet access at home this March, a 40 percent increase from last year. Half of those broadband subscribers used digital subscriber line (DSL) connections, while 41 percent used cable modems, the opposite of last year's market share between the two technologies. Wireless broadband accounts for 8 percent of home users' Internet connections.
With more usage comes the need for even more bandwidth: telcos AT&T and Verizon Communications are investing billions of dollars to upgrade their slower DSL networks, bringing super-fast, fiber-optic lines closer to their customers and increasing available bandwidth for television services and faster Web downloads. (See "Tomorrow's Tube?") Other options for broadband access could soon surface, including Internet over power lines and broad-range, high-speed wireless access. On Aug. 8, Sprint Nextel, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, announced an ambitious $3 billion plan to build the first nationwide high-speed wireless network using a nascent technology called mobile WiMax, aiming at computers, cellphones, portable videogame consoles and music players. (See "Sprint Boss Goes Next-Gen.")
To calculate the most wired cities, we started with the top markets in broadband adoption as determined by Internet market research firm Nielsen//NetRatings. We dropped cities that didn't crack the U.S. Census Bureau's top 100 list, such as Hartford, Conn. Using the namesake city in each Nielsen market area — which eliminated some large cities, such as San Jose, Calif. — we then calculated service provider variety using the latest available statistics from the Federal Communications Commission. We determined Wi-Fi hot spots per capita from statistics by public hot spot directory JiWire and population estimates.