Below are some of the press announcements highlighting HCS EdConnect partner organizations and the collaboration which has made this project possible:
Year One: One-third of all Hamilton County students benefit from internet access program (May 2021)
Less than a year since its launch, HCS EdConnect, Powered by EPB, has installed internet at no charge in the homes of more than a third of all Hamilton County Schools students, marking an unprecedented leap in closing the digital divide. Before the program’s launch, officials estimated that up to one-third of Hamilton County Schools students did not have internet access at home.
More than 14,000 students have enrolled, who together with their household members, represent more than 25,000 people who now have internet access through HCS EdConnect. Students who are on free or reduced lunch or whose families receive SNAP benefits are eligible for the program, which installs internet service with at least 100 Mbps from EPB in each qualifying child’s home.
“We love it, we don’t have to worry about the internet anymore,” said Kimberly Rios-Gonzalez, HCS parent and EdConnect participant. “My daughter no longer worries about turning her work in on time. I can connect my phone and talk to my mom and stay on there for hours — the little things rank up to something huge.”
“The impact of HCS EdConnect goes far beyond the benefits it provides for students,” said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. “The whole family can use the internet to access online services, work remotely, seek employment, and access entertainment.”
Chattanooga is one of a handful of leaders in the United States, including Chicago, San Antonio, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., that have launched a program in the last year aimed at closing the digital divide. Chattanooga is taking the most comprehensive approach with a commitment to continuing the program for at least 10 years while providing a connection at least twice as fast as typical educational access offerings from other providers with symmetrical speeds (same speed for uploads and downloads) and no data caps. Additionally, while other programs are heavily dependent on WiFi hotspots, which can be unreliable, HCS EdConnect delivers a fast and highly dependable fiber optic connection to the vast majority of participants, relying on hotspots for only 6 percent of students who live in areas that EPB cannot serve as well as students who do not have a permanent address.
HCS EdConnect has been recognized by, among others, U.S. News & World Report, Vox, and Bloomberg as a model program. The program also has the chance to deepen our understanding of how internet access can impact individual learning outcomes and the local economy, as program partners have engaged researchers from Boston College to study the impact of HCS EdConnect.
“We are showing the rest of the country what it looks like to close the digital divide in education,” said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly. “HCS EdConnect is a comprehensive solution, and since the partners have made a 10-year commitment to the program, this will be a lasting solution.”
The digital divide existed long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the health crisis highlighted how severe the consequences of the digital divide can be. Initially, remote learning was extremely challenging, if not impossible, for a sizable portion of Hamilton County Schools students. However, HCS EdConnect, coupled with other efforts such as the rapid expansion of EPB public WiFi access points, improved learning for students.
“For the next decade and hopefully beyond, HCS EdConnect will provide high-speed internet access to nearly 30,000 economically disadvantaged students as well as their families, and I’m proud to be part of a community who prioritized closing the digital divide in the midst of global pandemic” said Dr. Bryan Johnson, former superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. “Private and public partnership was a critical part of this program being possible and we will continue to seek community partners who can join us in helping all children thrive and experience a future without limits.”
HCS EdConnect is possible because EPB deployed a ubiquitous, community-wide fiber optic network in 2010. As a result of this in-place infrastructure which passes every premise, the new program is able to provide the final link in delivering the service both quickly and affordably.
Funding partners have provided $7.9 million to cover upfront infrastructure costs for the program including additional equipment, fiber optic drops and wireless routers. HCS EdConnect is a public-private partnership made possible through support and engagement from Hamilton County, Hamilton County Schools, the City of Chattanooga, EPB, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the Smart City Venture fund — which includes The Benwood Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Footprint Foundation and The Maclellan Foundation— private donors, and CARES funding through a contract with the State of Tennessee.
Each year, eligible students will be able to opt into the program, and their families will stay connected year-round, including summers, for at least 10 years or until the child is no longer enrolled in Hamilton County Schools.
“The internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity of modern life,” said Deb Socia, president of The Enterprise Center, which has been integral in coordinating HCS EdConnect. “Every child gets a book and when the internet is the medium for learning, every child must have access.”
“HCS EdConnect is one of the most exciting ways Chattanooga’s community-wide fiber optic network benefits the people we serve and helps enhance our area’s quality of life,” said EPB President David Wade. “HCS EdConnect leverages our smart infrastructure to support students and their families, as well as the local economy.”
Hamilton County Schools, The Enterprise Center, and EPB continue to work with their partners to add even more eligible families to the program.
From the launch announcement (July 2020)
Hamilton County Schools (HCS) is joining with EPB of Chattanooga and other community partners to ensure all students can access the internet for online learning as the COVID-19 crisis continues. Made possible by support from local private and public partners and by having a community-wide fiber optic network in place, HCS EdConnect powered by EPB is a new initiative that will provide internet services to about 28,500 economically challenged students in Hamilton County Schools in the greater Chattanooga area—at no charge to the family. The formation of this partnership program is the first time a U.S community is definitively bridging the digital divide for education by providing a high-quality broadband solution to all students in need.
Families in the EPB service area with students who participate in HCS EdConnect powered by EPB will receive a router and at least 100 Mbps internet service at no charge to them. This 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. The program is structured such that qualified students will maintain their internet services at no charge for at least ten years if the partnership reaches its full fund-raising goal.
“Ensuring the continued educational progress of our students is our top priority. We’re meeting the challenges of the COVID crisis head-on by creating this innovative new program to ensure that our students have the connectivity they need to excel in the short-term and for the foreseeable future.”Mayor Jim Coppinger, Hamilton County
HCS EdConnect is made possible because the Chattanooga area is served by a 100% fiber-to-the-home network that passes every home and business. This pioneering community-based fiber optic network was built-out in 2010 by EPB, the community’s municipally owned energy and connectivity provider.
“Families and students need high-speed broadband for schoolwork, exploration, and innovation. Through this partnership, we are using our fiber network to improve the lives of thousands of families.”Andy Berke, Former Mayor | City of Chattanooga
Community partnerships have allowed Hamilton County Schools to rapidly raise $6 million toward the upfront infrastructure investment of $8.2 million necessary for the additional infrastructure and equipment needed at the outset of the project. Thus far, the funding partners for HCS EdConnect include 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 H. Maclellan Foundation.
“Our teachers, administrators, staff, and families are so thankful for the way this community is coming together to ensure the continuing educational progress of our children More funding partners are already stepping forward to assist us in reaching full funding and helping our children become future-ready and prepared for success in school and life after graduation.”Dr. Bryan Johnson, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent
“This partnership will benefit students, their families, and our community. Our mission as a board and school district is to move all children in our school district forward, and this effort will address vital action plan areas of Accelerating Student Achievement, providing Future Ready Students, and an Engaged Community found in our five-year plan Future Ready 2023.”Joe Wingate, Former Chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic has made learning more difficult for both students and their families, especially those who don’t have fast, reliable internet access. This program will help Hamilton County students keep learning in today’s unique environment — and beyond — and help address the societal inequities that make it difficult for families to thrive.”Roy Vaughn, Executive Director of the BlueCross Foundation
HCS EdConnect will ensure that all students have the connectivity they need to access the school district’s virtual learning programs, including HCS at Home and HCS Virtual School. HCS EdConnect is a locally funded, community-based initiative. Eligibility to participate is determined by the benchmarks for economic disadvantage set by the state of Tennessee.
If the full-fundraising goal is reached, Hamilton County Schools and EPB will be able to fund the on-going cost of the service out of their existing operating budgets for ten years. The Enterprise Center will also play a significant role in facilitating communications and delivering technical support for HCS EdConnect powered by EPB.
“Online learning is an integral part of education in the 21st century, especially in a world made remote due to COVID-19. Now, just as any student who depends on transportation is able to ride the bus, every student will be able to fully participate in the incredible opportunities afforded by Hamilton County Schools.”Deb Socia, President and CEO of The Enterprise Center
“EPB’s mission is to enhance the quality of life and economic growth of our community. I can’t think of a greater impact we could have than joining with our private and public partners to do what we can to help our students reach their full potential and prepare for their future careers.”Warren Logan, Former President and CEO of the Urban League