IMC Newsdesk

Chattanooga smart city network brings home learning to students

  • September 2, 2020
  • Steve Rogerson

Hamilton County Schools (HCS) is working with energy utility EPB and others to use the city of Chattanooga’s smart city infrastructure 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 fibre optic network in place, HCS EdConnect is an initiative that will provide internet services to about 28,500 economically challenged students in HCS in the greater Chattanooga area. There will be no charge to the family.

The formation of this partnership programme is said to be the first time a US community is bridging the digital divide for education by providing high-quality broadband to all students in need.

Families in the EPB service area with students who participate in HCS EdConnect will receive a router and at least 100Mbit/s internet service at no charge. This internet service is said to be at least four times faster than typical educational access offerings from other providers, and it delivers symmetrical speeds – same speed for uploads and downloads – with no data caps.

As a result, HCS EdConnect families should have more than enough broadband capacity and data to participate in video-based learning and other high bandwidth educational applications. The programme 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,” said Hamilton County mayor Jim Coppinger. “We’re meeting the challenges of the Covid crisis head-on by creating this innovative new programme to ensure that our students have the connectivity they need to excel in the short term and for the foreseeable future.”

HCS EdConnect is made possible because the Chattanooga area is served by a 100% fibre-to-the-home network that passes every home and business. This community-based fibre 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,” said Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke. “Through this partnership, we are using our fibre network to improve the lives of thousands of families.”

Community partnerships have allowed HCS to raise $6m towards the upfront infrastructure investment of $8.2m necessary for the additional infrastructure and equipment needed at the outset of the project. 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 & Katherina Maclellan Foundation.

“This partnership will benefit students, their families, and our community,” said Joe Wingate, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education. “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.”

HCS EdConnect will ensure that all students have the connectivity they need to access the school district’s virtual learning programmes, 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.

“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,” said Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross Foundation. “This programme 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.”

If the full-fundraising goal is reached, HCS 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 role in facilitating communications and delivering technical support for HCS EdConnect.

“Online learning is an integral part of education in the 21st century, especially in a world made remote due to Covid-19,” said Deb Socia, president of the Enterprise Center. “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.”

Based on the funding that is already in place, HCS has begun outreach to eligible students in the district. As families respond and opt-in to participate, plans are in place for EPB to begin installations immediately. HCS EdConnect provides for the installation of additional equipment, including a wifi router to ensure a high-quality internet service with ready-to-use wifi access. The offering is being rolled out as quickly as possible over the next several months until all students have access.

“EPB’s mission is to enhance the quality of life and economic growth of our community,” said Warren Logan, EPB board chair. “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.”