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 US$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.
Through the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), The Enterprise Center will receive about US$1.5 million to help students continue their studies during the pandemic by providing fiber optic internet connectivity at home for up to 10 years through EPB's HCS EdConnect.
Launched in July, HCS EdConnect provides home-based fiber optic internet connectivity at no charge to 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.
“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.”
As of the July launch, HCS EdConnect partners had already raised US$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 US$7.5 million of the projected US$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 7500 students in more than 4600 households. EPB continues to install more eligible customers as quickly as possible.
Wade also encouraged eligible families to call EPB to schedule their installation. He said, “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.”
EPB claims HCS EdConnect to be at least four times faster than typical educational access offerings from other providers and 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.
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 Governor Bill Lee, the Tennessee Department of Human Services, and all members of the Hamilton County Legislative Delegation, especially our state senators, Senator Bo Watson and Senator 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.”
“We’re making a smart investment in infrastructure, equipment, and devices that will help our students continue to learn through the current crisis,” said Watson. “We’re also providing our community with durable assets, so we can continue to deliver the online access for learning these students will need for years to come.”
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke led the city in providing US$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.
“In greater Chattanooga, we’ve built a culture upon the foundational idea that ‘We live better when we live united,’” said Lesley Scearce, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Chattanooga. “Collaboration around pressing and timely community issues, as seen with HCS EdConnect, will unite people and resources to build a stronger community both for today and the long term.”
At the same time, Public Education Foundation (PEF) and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation will use nearly US$1.5 million in Tennessee Community CARES funding to provide 3200 Hamilton County students in grades K-2 with Chromebooks and tablets to help close the device gap, allowing all students to learn from home as schools respond to COVID-19. 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-19 crisis, the Chamber Foundation engaged local businesses in providing more than US$100,000 in funding for devices.
EPB has requested parents who have opted in for HCS EdConnect to call the company at (423) 648-1372. They may also contact their child’s school for more information and to learn how to qualify.