There are plenty of skeptics that deride municipal broadband for various reasons, mostly centered on whether local government should be competing against commercial ISPs. What those skeptics are missing is the immense benefits that a municipal broadband network can bring to a community.
Witness the huge undertaking in Hamilton County, Tennessee, home to Chattanooga’s municipal EPB fiber broadband network. At the start of the pandemic, the school districts quickly discovered that roughly one-third of the 45,000 households with students didn’t have home broadband, making remote school impossible.
The community is responding in a big way and has decided to solve the homework gap in the county, by making sure that every home with a student has broadband access. Even before the pandemic, EPB had offered a low-cost broadband product for $26.99 that had reached about 10% of the homes in the community – but EPB found that even that price was a barrier for a lot of households. The county also has a lot of students that live outside of the footprint of the fiber network.
The community has come together to create a partnership called HCS EdConnect. This is a collaboration between the EPB fiber business, the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Hamilton County Schools, a local non-profit the Enterprise Center, and several private funders. HCS EdConnect has pledged that all low-income students in Hamilton County will have free broadband for the next ten years.
This is an expensive undertaking, and Deb Socia, the CEO of the Enterprise Center, says the total cost will be $15 million over ten years to fund broadband connectivity. That includes $8.2 million upfront to fund the cost of connecting homes to broadband. That money was raised with $1 million from Hamilton County Schools, $1.5 million each from the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and generous donations from the private sector, including $1 million each from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Tennessee and the Smart City Century Fund.
Qualifying homes with students will get free broadband for at least ten years, as long as they stay in the district and have students at home. Households qualify if they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and those receiving SNAP or TANF benefits.
By Tennessee law, EPB cannot provide free broadband, so the remaining funding will be to cover the monthly cost of the EBP low-cost broadband program in the city or to provide a free cellular hotspot outside the city. However, EPB is still a big participant in the project and has hired eight new technicians to implement the program.
The difference-maker in this case is having a municipal fiber network that puts the needs of the community above profits. There is no reason that a commercial ISP like Comcast or Charter couldn’t engage in a similar partnerships – but I’ve never heard of any discussions of this nature.
It’s almost impossible to stress the importance of this effort for the county. The benefits of having good home broadband transcend the temporary issues of the pandemic. A definitive study of the negative impact of students living in homes without broadband was published in early 2020 by the Quello Center, part of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State. The results of that study were eye-opening. The study showed that students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include
- Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18, while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
- During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
- Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
- One of the most important findings identified a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband.
Hamilton County is going to see transformational benefits from this effort. Students who grow up with good digital skills are going to grow up ready to thrive in a digital economy. Hamilton County has a lot of homes below the poverty level, and my bet is that in the decades to come that the county will become a different place.
This move by Hamilton County answers the big question of why cities might consider building a municipal broadband network – it can be transformational for the long-term well-being of the community. This move also throws a gauntlet at the feet of the cable companies. They never miss an opportunity to quash municipal and other potential competitors. Perhaps a better tactic would be to become a valuable partner with local government to tackle the digital divide.