UPDATE: Sept. 30, 2020: Telecom company EPB announced the State of Tennessee will distribute $3 million in Tennessee Community CARES Program funding to help bridge the digital divide for Chattanooga-area students.

The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit organization participating in this partnership effort, will receive $1.5 million to provide nearly 28,000 students with at-home, fiber optic internet connectivity for up to 10 years. This connectivity will be powered by EPB’s Hamilton County Schools (HCS) EdConnect program, launched in July. HCS EdConnect currently reaches more than 7,500 area-students.

The other $1.5 million will go to the Public Education Foundation (PEF) and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation to provide 3,200 Chromebooks and tablet devices to students, in an effort to close the device gap.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R, said in a statement that he is “heartened” by these efforts to bridge the digital divide for students. “We are using funds in an intelligent and meaningful way that will really make a difference for the people we represent,” he said.

Dive Brief:

  • A public-private partnership between the school district in Hamilton County, TN, where Chattanooga is the county seat, and municipally-owned power and telecom provider EPB will provide more than 28,000 students with free high-speed internet service at home. The program ensures students will have internet access during the school year, with at least a portion of the year already-planned to be remote.
  • Students and their families can apply for the program if they qualify for the federal free or reduced-priced meals program, which is about two-thirds of the students in Hamilton County. The household will receive a free router and 100 Mpbs fiber internet with no data caps.
  • Hamilton County Schools has raised $6 million for the upfront infrastructure investment through community partnerships. It intends to raise an additional $2.2 million for additional equipment and infrastructure needed for the 10-year project.

Dive Insight:

The digital divide has received renewed attention during the pandemic. People who can’t afford internet service are excluded from home schooling, remote work, entertainment and digital interpersonal connections. The chasm has arguably grown deeper during the pandemic because those without internet often haven’t been able to visit access points such as offices, libraries, restaurants and stores where they might typically get connected. 

Federal and local efforts to bridge the digital divide have been ramping up over the past few years, including movement from Congress and funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But action went into overdrive as soon as U.S. communities started implementing pandemic-induced closures. Telecom companies offered free Wi-Fi hotspot access, in addition to temporary free home internet for low-income households, especially those with children. And cities including San Francisco and Hopewell, VA got creative by setting up Wi-Fi “SuperSpots” and retrofitting school buses with wireless routers.

School districts across the country have also announced funding or strategic partnerships to provide students internet access, including in Houston, Philadelphia and throughout Alabama. Programs also have been put in place to supply students with electronic devices. 

The Hamilton County program stands out from other initiatives because it supplies in-home internet as opposed to Wi-Fi hotspots, plus students receive high-speed fiber service and not merely a standard connection. Chicago launched a similar student broadband program in June, making it one of the first and largest such initiatives in the country, but the stated maximum speeds are not quite to the level of the Hamilton County program.

Hamilton County households must re-qualify for this program every year, and they can maintain free internet access as long as they have a student in the school system. Catering to school-age children ensures students have the necessary tools to learn both in-class and at home. But it also allows for the important factor of extracurricular learning opportunities.

“We only have our students roughly 20% of their living time and the other 80% they’re at home. So for them to be able to connect to the internet at home and engage and do things that inspire their creativity through the internet, that’s spectacular,” said Rachel Emond, Rock Point Learning Community outreach facilitator at Hamilton County Schools.

Programs like this also help everyone else within the household, and that’s intentional, said Scottie Summerlin, public relations coordinator at EPB. “This will not only help students, but it will help their families — like their parents, if they have to work virtually or job search or use telehealth services,” Summerlin said. The initiative is a more holistic approach to addressing the digital divide issue.

“It’s a systemic answer to a lot of big problems,” Emond said.

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