Chattanooga is closing the digital divide with a precedent-setting commitment to internet connectivity for all.
In Chattanooga, we expect that every home will have running water and electricity. An internet connection, however, is a luxury. But when schools and businesses sent students and staff home to shelter in place in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, suddenly logging on was a necessity. Internet access became a starkly visible dividing line between the haves and have nots in our community.
A Growing Divide
As the Gig City, Chattanooga has staked its claim as a community with ubiquitous, ultra-fast internet – and a model for municipal broadband. However, our city continues to struggle with a digital divide just like communities across the country. The truth is, in many ways the digital divide here is even more stark: while some families and businesses have access to literally the fastest internet in the world, other families and businesses can’t afford access at all.
“Our city has the assets to rapidly close – or expand – the digital divide,” says Geoff Millener, Senior Program and Operations Officer at The Enterprise Center. “The internet has not been a luxury for a long time. Each day the burden becomes greater for people who don’t have access.”
He challenges us to consider what parts of our lives aren’t affected by technology. “From telehealth visits to digital skills needed for jobs to running a small business, our community’s innovation is fueled by connectivity,” he says. “And now, even social interaction relies heavily on a solid internet connection. Yet as many as 30 percent of people in our city cannot access any of these resources. They do not have broadband access.”
Closure as Catalyst
Millener has long been at the center of efforts to fully leverage Chattanooga’s EPB municipal broadband network for digital equity, and progress rapidly accelerated as the city suddenly shut down to shelter in place.
“COVID-19 provided us with a shared understanding of the importance of broadband connectivity,” Millener says.
Employers immediately needed to know their staff had devices and access. Hamilton County Schools, which serves more than 45,000 students, knew remote learning online could provide an effective way for schools to continue to engage and support students, but leaders quickly learned that an estimated 1 in 4 students lacked internet access.
In the face of this emergent need a core partnership between Hamilton County Schools, EPB, The Enterprise Center, the City of Chattanooga, and Hamilton County emerged to provide a significant response – one that Chattanooga alone was uniquely positioned to provide.
A Precedent-Setting Partnership: HCS EdConnect
On July 29, 2020, EPB, city and county mayors, community partners, and the Hamilton County Schools announced HCS EdConnect powered by EPB. This innovative solution will provide free in-home internet service to more than 28,000 low-income students for ten years.
It’s also the best internet available anywhere in the nation: HCS EdConnect internet service is at least four times faster than typical educational access offerings from other providers, and it is the only one that delivers symmetrical speeds (same speed for uploads and downloads) with no data caps. As a result, HCS EdConnect families will have more than enough broadband capacity and data to participate in video-based learning and other high-bandwidth educational applications.
“Chattanooga has the best broadband asset in the county,” explains Marcus Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of The Company Lab (CO.LAB). “The question has always been ‘How do we get this to everyone?’”
He asserts that the elegance of the HCS EdConnect solution and the speed with which it happened is the result of ambitious leadership at every level across every partner organization in the city.
“Our community has leaders who think progressively about what we want Chattanooga to be five years from now, and then we identify how to get to that point,” Shaw says. “That’s the table stakes. Regardless of your political persuasion, we’re looking forward and we’re not shooting for low-hanging fruit.”
Leaders from Hamilton County Schools, EPB, and the Enterprise Center and many others share a vision to improve equity in local public education. In 2020, that didn’t mean a state-of-the-art building – it meant high-speed internet. As partners dug into the problem, they had a simple commitment: let’s give the most vulnerable kids at the most vulnerable time internet access that is most equitable.
Here’s where the value of a publicly owned utility becomes apparent. Fiber is available almost everywhere in Chattanooga – not just in high-income neighborhoods. In addition, EPB began digging in 2010, so the sunk cost of infrastructure is in Chattanooga’s economic past – not its pandemic present.
“We knew what we wanted to achieve and backed into the cost to provide it,” says Shaw. “Once we determined the start-up cost would be approximately $8.2 million, we knew we could raise that.”
And they did raise it – quickly. In a matter of a few months Hamilton County Schools raised $6 million toward the upfront infrastructure cost of $8.2 million. Support came from local private and public partners. To date, financial support has come from Hamilton County, the City of Chattanooga, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, and the Smart City Venture Fund, which includes Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation, Footprint Foundation, and Robert L. and Katherina Maclellan Foundation.
“We wanted to create a solution that could extend past the COVID-19 crisis,” Shaw says.
HCS EdConnect is a long-term, affordable solution for Hamilton County Schools. Beyond the initial $8.2 million start-up costs, continuing to provide high-speed internet to families who qualify for free or reduced lunch will cost Hamilton County Schools just $500,000 per year. District leaders are confident the school system will be able to work the cost into its annual budget for the next decade.
Nationally, cities are staring into the crevasse that is the digital divide and struggling with few affordable options for widespread, long-term connectivity for students. In June Chicago announced a $50 million, four-year program, while Nashville will invest $4 million for 17,000 hotspots for a single year.
HCS EdConnect organizers recognize that the “simple” part of the program was creating a precedent-setting solution. Now, EPB, The Enterprise Center, and Hamilton County Schools have months of work ahead of them to connect families and work out glitches that will inevitably arise along the way.
Challenges that have already arisen include internet-provider agreements in place with apartment complexes, which make it difficult for families to choose EPB internet coverage; state laws limiting EPB’s fiber footprint, which means that a few hundred students in northern parts of the county will have to be served with at-home hotspots, and tech support for families after installation.
“There’s a reason no other community has done this before,” says Lori Quillen, Program Director at Benwood. “If we’d gotten hung up on the challenges, we wouldn’t have moved forward. We know that this is the right solution for our community, and public-private partnerships spread risk and provide flexibility.”
Shaw is already thinking about return on investment and is certain Chattanooga citizens will see tremendous benefit.
“This is the first announcement of its kind addressing a full cohort of the most vulnerable students in the entire system,” he explains. “I compare this to when my grandparents got their first car. Suddenly, they could do things they simply couldn’t before. For children with access to broadband at home for the first time, it will be life changing. Imagine yourself as a student: for the first time when it’s a snow day, you don’t get behind. You’re able to get ahead. In the summer you can participate in an enrichment program that doesn’t cost anything – maybe in just 40 minutes a day.
“HCS EdConnect will impact more than 28,000 students every year over 10 years. The case for ROI on the $8.2 million investment is clear. If you have even ten kids able to perform at a higher level…they’re able to do better in school…go to college, start a business…. If just ten kids have just $1 million in economic impact over their lives, you get your money back. The opportunity is astounding.”
The Best Free Public WiFi: EPB Quick Connect
While HCS EdConnect will serve students and their families at home, creating a truly connected city expands beyond individual residences. As Chattanooga created a best-practice solution for in-home broadband, leaders were also working to address citizen needs as people move through the city.
Nationally there are two primary approaches to public WiFi. The first is creating small community networks. These are hyper-local hotspots typically located near community hubs and while they offer access to vital resources, they can lack the speed or capacity for users to take full advantage of the internet. The second approach is a WiFi “blanket” within a limited area, usually a downtown, that offers free WiFi to tourists and locals within the downtown footprint.
“Because of our infrastructure we can implement the best of both approaches in Chattanooga,” explains Millener.
EPB first set to work installing 27 free public WiFi hotspots (at Gigabit speeds) across the community with a key focus on neighborhoods with low-income students in response to the coronavirus emergency. Meanwhile Hamilton County Schools worked to identify families that struggled with internet access. Guided by information from community leaders, The Enterprise Center overlaid those neighborhood maps with potential points for additional WiFi hotspots – parks, bus stops, churches, businesses, and other accessible areas. The City of Chattanooga in partnership with Benwood provided additional funding for the WiFi hotspot installations.
About 75 hotspots have been deployed with a goal for 150 total. Through this work Millener estimates that an additional 10,000 households will be within a 5-minute walk of free, high-speed public WiFi. Users can look for the network name “EPB Quick Connect.” No password is necessary to log on, just a quick user agreement.
“It’s important to note that Chattanooga’s free public WiFi network is gig backed, so It should be better than anywhere that isn’t Chattanooga,” says Millener. “We don’t have a ‘low-income’ version of power and water in Chattanooga. Everyone gets the same quality of service. The same can now be the case with our internet connections.”
While all of this effort has been made largely in response to COVID-19, this network and its capacity will continue long after coronavirus has passed. EPB will continue to operate the hotspots and the City is exploring ways to incorporate public WiFi hotspot installation into most of their infrastructure projects.
Positioned for Innovation
Chattanooga’s neighborhood-based public WiFi network may well be the largest in the country. Paired with HCS EdConnect, it is a huge step in narrowing the digital divide and spurring innovation in every corner of our community.
“We are doing with broadband what the country did 90 years ago with electricity,” Shaw says.
“Internet connectivity underscores innovation and is fundamental to participation in society,” says Millener. “The impact of these investments cannot be underestimated. How will Chattanoogans use their agency to change their goals and expand what’s possible for their lives? We cannot anticipate the complete extent of how thoroughly this will change our city for the better, but we can continuously participate in making broadband part of every person’s reality.”
Learn more about HCS EdConnect here: https://edconnect.hcde.org/.
Learn how to access Chattanooga’s free public WiFi network at www.techgoeshomecha.org/wifi