When the pandemic hit, public and private sector leaders in this Tennessee city came together to give economically challenged families free high-speed internet access.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first hit U.S. shores in early 2020, school systems throughout the nation have had to make transitions to digital instruction. Without a national mandate on in-person versus remote learning, school districts have been making independent decisions on education formats, often tied to the number of local coronavirus cases.
Schools in Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County, Tennessee, may face less pressure to reopen physically, however. As the pandemic took off and a national lockdown set in, leaders in the public and private sectors collaborated on a network that would allow students from economically challenged households within the Hamilton County Schools district to access free high-speed Wi-Fi .
The HCS EdConnect Program aims to offer free high-speed Wi-Fi to approximately 28,500 students in 18,000 households who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The program, which got off the ground in August, has relied on collaboration between the school district, the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Chattanooga electric power and telecommunications utility firm EPB and several private partners.
"In March, when we very quickly had to close down school and move to virtual learning, the digital inequity became very apparent to us very quickly," says Jill Levine, chief of innovation and choice for Hamilton County Schools, which runs 79 schools, according to its website. When schools had to close on March 13, "All of a sudden, we had thousands of kids who couldn't get an education."
But Chattanooga was uniquely positioned to overcome the difficulties presented by virtual learning. Since 2015, the city of 180,000 in southeastern Tennessee had been investing in high-speed internet access as a public utility, according to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
The city collaborated with EPB to launch a program called NetBridge that year, which "offered ultra high-speed broadband to any kid on free or reduced lunch at $26.99 per family," Berke says. "We had a couple thousand families take us up on the offer."
Around five years later, when the pandemic forced learning, and some forms of work, to become virtual in March, officials from the city and EPB immediately set about establishing Wi-Fi hotspots on poles in low-income neighborhoods so people could drive up and access Wi-Fi.
Still, that immediate solution didn't meet the needs of all Hamilton County students facing difficulties with connectivity at home.
In late March, a coalition partnership emerged between the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Hamilton County Schools, EPB and the nonprofit digital equity organization The Enterprise Center – as well as private donors – to connect families with students who qualified for free or reduced lunch to the city's high-speed network at no cost.
Deb Socia, president and CEO of The Enterprise Center, says there was an estimated cost of $15 million to provide the free internet access to students for a 10-year period. "There was a cost of $8.2 million in upfront costs for infrastructure," she says – but once that investment was in place, the cost of the program came down far enough that it became sustainable for Hamilton County Schools on a monthly basis.
Of the initial $8.2 million needed for infrastructure, Hamilton County Schools contributed $1 million, while the Hamilton County government and Chattanooga government each gave $1.5 million, according to documentation provided by Berke's office.
Prominent private sector donors included the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Tennessee and the Smart City Venture Fund, both of which contributed $1 million. Several private donors made smaller contributions that enabled partners to meet their initial goal.
After raising funds during the spring and summer, partners were able to announce open enrollment in the EdConnect program at the end of July, and began installing Wi-Fi hardware in the homes of qualifying residents in August, according to Berke's office.
Enrollment in the EdConnect program is ongoing, and mostly contingent upon qualifying families opting into the service and allowing EPB personnel to install routers in their homes, Berke says. Despite being in operation for less than a year, he estimates the program has connected more than 10,000 students and their families to the city's high-speed internet, which is among the fastest in the country, officials say.
Coalition partners agree that the program will probably last more than the initial 10-year term.
"I can't imagine that this will ever end," Berke says. "It's too impactful, too important… I think this is a model for the country in terms of providing broadband as infrastructure."
Officials tout the EdConnect program as a leap forward during an education crisis prompted by the pandemic. They call it a boon for both public-private cooperation and a possible reimagining for how municipalities provide internet access to residents.
"I don't know of anywhere else in the country at that particular time where you had partners coming together to offer an internet connection to all of our public schools," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger says.
Berke hopes EdConnect can serve as a model for how Americans view connectivity: "I think this is the start of a larger discussion on how we make high-speed broadband affordable for more American families," he says. "We don't make roads available to people only based on their income, nor do we do that with sewers and water mains. If we think of internet as infrastructure, it's going to change how we distribute it."
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