from the from-the-ground-up dept
It goes without saying that the current pandemic has altered our national broadband conversation. What it has not changed, as those of us who have been working in this space are painfully aware, is the reality which existed long before COVID-19. Nor has the virus undone any of the decisions made over the last few decades which have lead us here — a moment epitomized by a viral image of two girls attending classes from a Taco Bell parking lot.
What is particularly difficult to accept are the limited options which can provide immediate relief. There are some quick fixes, like the hotspot the school district provided for those two girls, but these stopgap measures are imperfect and, often, ineffective. Mobile hotspots have limited coverage areas, often come with data caps, can be unsustainably expensive and provide access at sub-broadband speeds. Rather than closing a divide, they shift and mask it while creating two different classes of internet user — yet hundreds of millions of dollars are being expended on them. In a moment like this, we must employ every tool we have; we must also not lose sight of what else is possible.
In Chattanooga, The Enterprise Center has been working to close this divide for some time. We have a program, Tech Goes Home, that provides devices, help in finding low-cost home access and digital skills training to those who need the assistance. We have supported more than 4,900 individuals and worked with over 100 partner organizations through the program, but we still have a lot of work to do. After years of research and hard work by local governments, anchor institutions, and nonprofits across the country, we have made progress, yet the digital divide persists.
It feels callous to point out the opportunity we have, with more than 216,000 Americans now dead of this disease — but the pandemic has shone a light on systemic inequities, and we cannot look away. For particularly those of us who have worked around digital access and inclusion, there is a (perverse) sense of hope that our neighbors may be able to face whatever comes next on more equal footing.
So what else can we do about it? Partners in Chattanooga and Hamilton County recently launched HCS EdConnect, an initiative to ensure every student will have the home access they need to succeed during the pandemic, and beyond; in addition, we’ve worked to expand access to public WiFi across the county. Below, we will tell you how this response became possible while offering both some local best-practices and policy recommendations which can have an impact on other such initiatives.
A New Chattanooga Story
HCS EdConnect, powered by EPB will provide home broadband access to every economically disadvantaged family in our school district — roughly 17,700 families or 28,500 students — for at least the next decade and at no cost to them. This access is fiber-backed, offering a minimum 100Mbps symmetrical connection; any family receiving financial assistance through programs like SNAP or the Federal School Lunch Program are eligible, as is any family with a child attending a CEP (Community Eligibility Provision) school.
HCS EdConnect represents a $15.3M commitment to the fundamental reality that the Internet is integral to a 21st century education, and that any equitable public education requires equitable access to the Internet. In utilizing municipal broadband to ensure not just access, but high-speed connectivity sufficient for students and their entire families, EdConnect is truly a first-of-its kind initiative — and our future depends on it being the first of many.
It has been a true community effort. Funding partners for HCS EdConnect include Hamilton County; the City of Chattanooga; BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, private donors, the Smart City Venture Fund, representing numerous local philanthropies, and CARES, funded under a grant project with the State of Tennessee. Numerous community organizations, public and private, have played vital roles in implementation.
Chattanooga has an advantage stemming from EPB’s investment in municipal fiber more than a decade ago, and it is worth noting that timeline because we want to be clear in saying that this project could not have taken place overnight. Getting started, however, happened almost that quickly. From our perspective, municipal fiber isn’t the only reason we were able to make this commitment, but investment in infrastructure, public, private or some partnership thereof must be part of any long-term solution.
What Made Our Response Possible?
Community Leadership: EdConnect could not have happened without the leadership of the partners at the core of this work: Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, EPB CEO David Wade, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. From rapid deployment of public WiFi to this decade-long commitment to home access, our community leaders banded together to see this project through; this has not been the work of one organization, buoyed by others, but an all-in approach. Our community, cemented by a mid-size city, often tells the story of “working together works” — this is an instance of living that story.
Multi-stakeholder Partnership: Our multi-stakeholder collaborative has numerous advantages: There has been, from a high level, a commitment to not stopping when confronted by barriers, but going over, around or through them. Because each partner brings differing resources and capacities to the table, navigating challenges (and developing creative solutions) is that much easier. Trust in the community, we have learned again and again, is essential. For families who feel they have been let down by program after program, promise after promise, a relationship, like that with the teacher their child sees every day or a pastor from their church, offers an opportunity to build trust in something new.
Creativity in Funding: This multistakeholder approach extends to funding, as well: Funds for EdConnect and our expansion of public WiFi have come from the public sector (The City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Hamilton County Schools and EPB), the private sector (BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee), philanthropy (The Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, The Footprint Foundation, The Robert L. and Katherina Maclellan Foundation and the Lyndhurst Foundation) and individual donors, as well as through State CARES funding. There was no single source of support available for this initiative, but we treated that as an opportunity for community ownership rather than a reason to scale back.
A Commitment to All Meaning: All An ‘if you build it’ strategy rarely reaches everyone, and it’s impossible simply to make connectivity happen to a community: You’ve got to build with them. For an initiative truly focused on equity, we knew that it could only be as successful as connecting those hardest to reach. This ethos was at the heart of building the tracking system for eligible families, to ensure decisions could be informed by data (Were certain geographies or schools lagging in connection rate? Was a specific demographic not opting in or scheduling service?), as well as in adapting outreach and communication strategies.
A Multi-Pronged Approach: And, finally, knowing that no single solution could work for everyone, we invested in multiple strategies. This includes long-term investment in public WiFi, which offers emergency connectivity now and potential unanticipated benefits later, from neighborhood walkability to test-bed infrastructure, for environmental censors and the like. And, as we explore more sustainable solutions with local co-ops and other ISPs, it also includes mobile hotspots for those few hundred families who live outside of the footprint EPB is, per state policy, legally allowed to serve.
What Else Can Make a Difference?
Local Control: As noted above, EPB cannot provide service to all of Hamilton County; this has not stopped us from finding creative solutions, but not every community can draw on our breadth of providers. (Tennessee, for example, has expanded the authority of co-ops to offer internet service.) There are numerous, successful models for how public interests and private sector opportunities align around broadband, but restrictive preemption laws are a barrier to ensuring universal access.
Access to Funding: Infrastructure is expensive, but we are witnessing the devastating cost of failing to invest play out in real-time. Chattanooga was creative in response to the pandemic, but we had to be. As a city of fewer than 500,000 residents, despite an MSA of that size, Chattanooga did not have access to dedicated CARES funds, while larger municipalities like Nashville and San Antonio were able to draw on single funding streams to invest in connectivity solutions. Tennessee does fortunately have a state broadband office, and, working with state officials, our local delegation was able to secure more than $3 million in CARES funding to help bridge the digital divide for students locally — but not every state or community has these resources. Additional dedicated funding, for more than an emergency response and with a timeline beyond December 30th, is essential.
Modernizing E-Rate: Schools should be able to utilize E-Rate funding to provide or subsidize home access. The very existence of homework supposes that essential learning happens outside of the classroom. Schools, underfunded as they are, make incredibly difficult budget decisions every day; continuing to hamstring their ability to operate and equitably serve students with funding already available will have needless and devastating consequences.
Accurate Mapping: Finally, we need better mapping — not just of where service is available, but at what speeds and at what cost. Our current digital divide is not just a question of access, but of affordability. That we largely use FCC maps which only illustrate a partial story (and which overestimate coverage) to determine funding for deployment leads to families going unserved. In preparing both our public WiFi deployment and EdConnect outreach, we often relied on proxy data to inform decision making, like food insecurity mapping, from our United Way and 211; information from the school district on families who had not been in touch following the March closures; and modelling from Esri and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s GIS department.
Where We Go From Here
We firmly believe Chattanooga’s model is a replicable one, but we also know that the digital divide impacts more than K-12 students and their families. College students, the rising number of unemployed Americans, seniors and other medically vulnerable populations are just a few groups for whom affordable access to broadband is a dire necessity. COVID-19 has highlighted decades of systemic redlining, underinvestment and restrictive policy decisions, but it has also led to a newly shared understanding and experience of this digital divide. Closing it, though, is possible; we’re proving it.
Deb Socia is President and CEO of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit that nurtures innovation in Chattanooga with the goal of connecting people to resources and building an inclusive community. Geoff Millener serves as senior program and operations officer for The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.