The Enterprise Center is a peer organization of KC Digital Drive that manages a range of digital inclusion programs aimed at improving connectivity and access to digital technologies in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Three of the most important are the Quick Connect and HCS EdConnect programs, which helped Chattanooga residents stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Tech Goes Home, which provides laptops and digital skills training for those in the digital divide.
The Quick Connect program was started to address the immediate connectivity needs of Chattanooga residents at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was a partnership between The Enterprise Center, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, and Chatanooga’s municipal broadband provider EPB, and involved the deployment of 123 wireless access points throughout the city that provided free wireless connectivity to residents. The Quick Connect team gathered information about neighborhoods’ average income level, broadband adoption rate, and school-age population in order to prioritize the deployment of these access points in areas where they would have the greatest impact. Thanks to the support of EPB and private philanthropy, these access points were built with gigabit backhaul, allowing them to provide high speed internet access to large numbers of residents simultaneously. Since deployment, these access points have consistently supported about 15,000 users per month, and have carried many terabits worth of data.
While Quick Connect helped many families stay connected at the start of the pandemic, The Enterprise Center knew that the program was not a long-term connectivity solution for residents. So, partnering once more with EPB, The Enterprise Center started the HCS EdConnect program with the goal of connecting every K-12 student in the city. Through this program, any low-income family with a school-aged child can receive free broadband for ten years, with a minimum speed of 300 Mbps symmetrical. Because the Tennessee legislature has passed a law prohibiting EPB to sell their service for less than the cost of provision, the program team had to raise $8.2 million from a combination of grants, private philanthropy, and local government in order to get the program off the ground. However, the ongoing costs of the program are low enough that Chattanooga’s school district has committed to covering all costs for families’ service for at least the next ten years. Over 14,000 students have been connected through the program so far.
The Enterprise Center’s third major program is Tech Goes Home, which was adapted from a Boston initiative pioneered by Deb Socia, The Enterprise Center’s current president. Tech Goes Home has the three-part goal of helping people get connected to the internet, providing them with a device they can use to get online, and giving them the skills and education they need to be able to take advantage of the internet and improve their lives. The program employs a train-the-trainer model, whereby The Enterprise Center partners with schools, churches, and other community organizations to host 15-hours of digital skills classes for residents. With a $50 co-pay, individuals who complete the course are able to receive a brand new Chromebook at the end. The instructors also help students enroll in low-cost internet programs if they are eligible, helping ensure that they can afford to remain online after the class ends. All of Tech Goes Home’s curriculum is open source, allowing the program to be easily adapted by other communities according to their own needs and priorities.
Tech Goes Home has been operating since 2015 in Chattanooga, and more than 7,000 individuals have completed the training. Initially, Tech Goes Home offered only three kinds of classes: a digital basics course for adults, a class for schoolchildren and their guardians, and an early childhood program. Over the last seven years, however, TGH has added classes for early childhood educators, public school teachers, Spanish-speaking populations, individuals with disabilities, small business owners, older adults, and individuals seeking to up-skill into an office job. The Enterprise Center has also partnered with Chattanooga State Community College to provide a workforce development program that earns students a Google certification and 12 credit hours towards an associate’s degree. Initially Tech Goes Home classes were only available in the Chattanooga region, but The Enterprise Center is now beginning to expand some of its courses state-wide, starting with its older adult program and its class for early childhood educators. Thanks to these expansion plans and the pandemic-inspired surge of interest in digital skills training, The Enterprise Center expects to serve as many students in the upcoming year as it has in the previous seven.
In addition to these three programs, The Enterprise Center has also been heavily involved in promoting the adoption of the federal Affordable Connectivity Plan (ACP), which provides low-income households with a $30/month subsidy for their internet service. Several Enterprise Center staff have worked to become deeply familiar with the sign-up process, and hold frequent events to help individuals get enrolled. They have also begun hosting training sessions for the staff members of libraries, health clinics, schools, and other organizations so that those workers are able to assist their own clients in signing up for these programs.
The Enterprise Center credits much of the success of its programs to the work that had gone into building strong relationships with EPB, the local school district, and other key partners before the pandemic. Thanks to this work, The Enterprise Center was able to move quickly once COVID-19 started, and avoid having projects get bogged down by infighting or conflicts over credit. The Enterprise Center has also developed strong partnerships with organizations outside of the Chattanooga region, allowing it to play a major role in advancing connectivity projects throughout the state. For example, in partnership with the Tennessee Coalition for Digital Equity, The Enterprise Center has been working to help the state’s broadband office prepare for the upcoming federal BEAD grant program. And as part of the regional digital access and equity committee and broadband access coalition, The Enterprise Center has been working with neighboring localities to explore how to improve broadband infrastructure and connectivity through the expansion of existing co-op broadband providers, the establishment of new public-private partnerships, and the acceleration of other infrastructure projects.
Deb Socia, President and CEO of The Enterprise Center, presented to the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion on July 8, 2022.