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How Chattanooga Became a Web Access Innovator

Enterprising city officials and an aggressive non-profit put Choo Choo City on the national Internet map.


Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Photo: 44534236@N00/Flickr)

Last week, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was named among the first round of the 15 “Smart Gigabit Communities.” The grant, issued by the National Science Foundation, is an attempt to foster, in the organization’s words, “a national high-speed internet application development system.” With the new funds, the city will build out at least two gigabit-enabled applications or public services. While it may seem odd that Chattanooga, with its population of 170,000, has become one of the nation’s hubs for Internet-driven programs, the groundwork was laid long ago.

In 2008, the city’s Electric Power Board began offering one-gigabit-per-second fiber to its citizens. (This, a full five years before Google Fiber “changed the game” in Kansas City.) Last October, the city announced it was boosting broadband capacity to 10 gigs-per-second, nearly 1,000 times as fast as the average connection in the United States. This new 10-gigs-per-second offering, though, is more luxury item than anything else. The cost for the service is a whopping $300 a month, which firmly places it in the business, rather than residential, center of activity.

But that shouldn’t suggest the town is business first, everything else second. In addition to providing the quickest Internet around, the city has also aggressively moved to close its digital divide.

“We believe that digital equity is one of the great issues that we face today,” says Andy Berke, Chattanooga’s mayor. “Technology should be used to make our city fairer, not to increase inequality. We don’t want to have digital gated communities.”

Berke may not have coined the phrase, but it’s the first I’ve heard of the digital divide being discussed in terms of “gated communities.” It makes sense and is not a terrible way to picture the problem. Closing the digital divide means more than just getting people shopping on eBay, emailing with relatives, or watching YouTube. It means fixing a cultural divide, where different sides begin speaking completely different languages. Closing the gap, then, is important to keeping everyone on the same page. But how?

“I’m amazed when you have an 85-year-old who never used a computer before and is like, ‘Oh, that thing’s the cursor, that’s a touchpad, that looks like a typewriter, I can do this.’”

The quickest way to accomplish this is by lowering the cost. Chattanooga has worked toward accomplishing this by rolling out its NetBridge Student Discount program, where low-income families can obtain high-speed broadband for $26.99 a month, as opposed to the normal price of $57.99 a month. The process is done via the school system: To qualify, a student in the family must be part of the free- or reduced-meal plan. After filling out some paperwork, the family becomes eligible for this cheaper access. (Comcast offers a cheaper option for low-income families in the city, costing $9.95 a month, but the service is one-tenth of NetBridge’s speed.)

But bringing affordable service to the home is only step one for closing the divide. Giving someone a new tool only has value if you also tell them what to do with it.

“Lots of folks say, everyone needs access,” says Ken Hays, president and CEO of The Enterprise Center, a Chattanooga non-profit focused on establishing the city as a technology hub. “But it’s access, education, and devices.”

To figure out the last two, Berke enlisted The Enterprise Center to survey the country for replicable programs, a search that led to Boston’s Tech Goes Home, which has been around since 1999. “We didn’t have to re-invent the wheel,” Hays says. (Among the few tweaks they made to “Chattanooganize” the program was focusing on spreading word about the programs via churches.) In 2015, the city opened a series of free courses to its residents under the name Tech Goes Home Chattanooga.

The series involves three types of course for three tiers of students. The first is an early-childhood program focused on training parents and pre-kindergarten kids for “student readiness, parent engagement, and educator preparedness,” including tutorials on iPad drawing applications and lessons on online atlas and weather programs. The second is for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade and involves tracking grades online and securing email addresses. The third is for those 18 or older and is taught throughout the city’s libraries, community centers, and public-housing developments. Upon completion of the latter two — each involving 15 hours of lessons — the newly digital literate can purchase a Chromebook computer for a low-cost co-pay of $50.

While lessons are focused on navigating the online world, a huge part of the program is getting newcomers simply up to physical tactile speed. “These are folks who have never used the computer before,” says Kelly McCarthy, who has run the program since its inception. Many classes are focused on getting people to feel comfortable with the machines. “I’m amazed when you have an 85-year-old who never used a computer before and is like, ‘Oh, that thing’s the cursor, that’s a touchpad, that looks like a typewriter, I can do this,’” McCarthy says. “It’s pretty outstanding.”

To McCarthy, though, the untold story of this sector is the city’s growing Latino population, generally recent immigrants who don’t speak English. “Everything is new, and they’re not citizens in many cases, so they don’t feel like they’re fully able to participate,” McCarthy says. But once they see that the city is providing this service for them, they suddenly feel as if they’re part of the community. The classes allow kids to perform better at school, sure, but that’s only part of it.

“People think of the homework gap [when they talk about the digital divide], but it’s a much deeper thing,” McCarthy says. “It’s also parents that have never used a computer before, that wouldn’t have the resources or the training. These classes open up a whole new world for them.”