State of Tennessee Helps Bridge Digital Divide for Chattanooga Area Students

  • EPB

CHATTANOOGA, TN —  A network of community partners working to comprehensively bridge the digital divide for Hamilton County students in need came together to thank state leaders for dedicating more than $3 million in Tennessee Community CARES funding toward the effort.

The new funding helps advance several carefully coordinated initiatives by more than a dozen public-private partners. Hamilton County Schools serves as the hub for reaching the goal of providing all students with internet access - along with the devices needed to learn online. This project is funded under a grant with the State of Tennessee, created to help communities solve obstacles the pandemic has caused.

“We thank Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee Department of Human Services and all members of the Hamilton County Legislative Delegation, especially our state senators, Sen. Bo Watson and Sen. Todd Gardenhire,” said Dr. Bryan Johnson, Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. “Their support is a tremendous boost to our public-private initiative, which already includes Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga along with nonprofits, business funders, and private foundations. The CARES funding is a huge step forward as we work together to bridge the digital divide for all Hamilton County students helping them to become future ready and prepared for success after graduation.”

Through the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), The Enterprise Center will receive about $1.5 million to help students continue their studies during the pandemic by providing fiber optic internet connectivity at home for some 28,000 Hamilton County Schools students at no charge to families for up to 10 years through HCS EdConnect powered by EPB. At the same time, Public Education Foundation (PEF) and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation will use nearly $1.5 million in Tennessee Community CARES funding to provide about 3,200 Chromebooks and tablet devices to help close the device gap, allowing all students to learn from home as schools respond to COVID-19.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke led the city in providing $1.5 million in support for HCS EdConnect. He said the Chattanooga area is leveraging its existing community-wide fiber optic network to make the project possible. “Because EPB led the nation in building out Chattanooga’s fiber optic network to every home and business in the Chattanooga area long before the pandemic began, our community is able to respond much more comprehensively to the dramatic upsurge in need for broadband access,” Mayor Berke said. “Using our smart city infrastructure in this way has a direct bearing on our students’ ability to continue to learn while also giving everyone in their families the critical connectivity they must have for earning and vital services such as telehealth.”

Solving the Device Deficit

Building on previous efforts by Hamilton County Schools over several years to provide Chromebooks or tablets to Hamilton County’s 3rd through 12th graders on a 1-to-1 basis, the Public Education Foundation (PEF) and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation plan to dedicate their Tennessee Community CARES funding to provide 3,200 Hamilton County students in grades K-2 with Chromebooks and tablets. The funding will also cover additional programs and other student resources.

“Public education is the talent development engine for our community,” said Christy Gillenwater with the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation. “Providing students with devices will further our efforts to ensure our residents have skills for the new economy.” At the outset of the COVID crisis, the Chamber Foundation engaged local businesses in providing more than $100,000 in funding for devices.

PEF’s Stacy Lightfoot said older students need devices too. “Some first-year students without a computer are turning in college papers and doing work from their cell phones,” Lightfoot said. “This funding will go a long way towards helping to provide laptops for these recent Hamilton County graduates to ensure they are equipped for college success.”

Providing Fiber Optic Internet for All Students

Tennessee Community Cares funding will also provide The Enterprise Center with $1.52 million in support for HCS EdConnect powered by EPB. Launched in July, this program provides home-based fiber optic internet connectivity at no charge to the families of as many as 28,000 Hamilton County students who meet the federal economic benchmarks for free and reduced lunch. The service includes fiber optic broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps and no data caps along with a WiFi router. The Enterprise Center and Tech Goes Home Chattanooga will also play a significant role in facilitating communications and delivering technical support for HCS EdConnect.

"Providing access means much more than delivering service, and we’re working to be sure students and their parents know how to take full advantage of this connectivity as well as provide the support they need when they run into challenges," said Deb Socia, president of The Enterprise Center. “Digital equity is at the core of The Enterprise Center's mission. By focusing on how we can provide comprehensive access to our neighbors who struggle to gain and maintain internet service, we create an invaluable source of stability — and opportunity — for families and for our community.”

As of the July launch, HCS EdConnect partners had already raised $6 million toward upfront infrastructure investment to make the project work. The founding funding partners are Hamilton County, 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. With the addition of Tennessee Community CARES funding the current funding total stands at $7.5 million of the projected $8.2 million needed.

“EPB is thankful to have so many community partners at all levels joining us as we pursue our mission of enhancing the quality of life and economic growth of our community,” said David Wade, president and CEO of EPB. “Supporting educational attainment is one of the cornerstones of EPB’s efforts because it lays a foundation for everything else.”

Since HCS EdConnect was launched at the end of July, EPB has made rapid progress in building out the service so that it now reaches more than 7,500 students in more than 4,600 households. EPB continues to install more eligible customers as quickly as possible.

Wade also encouraged eligible families to call EPB to schedule their installation. “We’re ready to install HCS EdConnect service to thousands of additional families, but we’re having trouble reaching some of them,” Wade said. “We invite every family who opted in by responding to the survey Hamilton County Schools sent out to call us to schedule installation anytime.”

HCS EdConnect powered by EPB is at least four times faster than typical educational access offerings from other providers, and it’s the only one that delivers symmetrical speeds (same speed for uploads and downloads) with no data caps. HCS EdConnect families will have more than enough broadband capacity and data to participate in video-based learning and other high bandwidth educational applications.

Thanks to Funding Partners

  • Tennessee Department of Human Services - Tennessee Community CARES
  • BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation
  • City of Chattanooga
  • Hamilton County
  • Smart City Venture Fund
  • Benwood Foundation
  • Community Foundation
  • Footprint Foundation
  • Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation 

EPB serves the greater Chattanooga area by providing world-class energy and connectivity solutions as a means of promoting economic development and enhancing quality of life for our community. We deliver electricity to more than 170,000 homes and businesses across our 600 square mile service area which includes most of Hamilton County as well as parts of surrounding counties in both Tennessee and Georgia. In 2010, EPB Fiber Optics, which offers internet, TV, and telephone services, became the first provider in the United States to deliver up to 1 Gig (1,000 Mbps) internet speeds utilizing a community-wide fiber optic network which is accessible to every home and business in its service area. In 2015, EPB became the first, and to date, only American ISP to make up to 10 Gig (10,000 Mbps) internet speeds accessible to all of its residential and commercial customers as a standard offer.

EPB has also utilized its community-wide fiber optic network to deploy the most advanced and highly automated smart grid power management system in the nation. In recognition of EPB’s groundbreaking infrastructure, the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are utilizing EPB’s smart grid as a national model for researching and developing best practices. EPB is also the first major power distribution utility to earn the USGBC’s PEER certification for having a highly automated, modernized electric power grid.

EPB is an independent board of the City of Chattanooga which began serving customers in 1939. Visit EPB.com for more information.

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