By Mary Helen Montgomery
As residents of the Chattanooga region began to practice social distancing, The Enterprise Center, EPB, and Hamilton County Schools estimated there were up to 10,000 students without internet access at home. After working quickly and collaboratively with partners, we now estimate at least 4,000 residents (many of them students) who were previously disconnected, now have near- or in-home internet access.
The Enterprise Center, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Thrive Regional Partnership, and Hamilton County Schools rapidly created maps highlighting areas of low connectivity and food insecurity. The mobile-friendly WiFi locator tool shows more than 700 sites residents can safely access public WiFi through the EPB’s hotspots, the City-owned network, Comcast Xfinity, libraries, community centers, restaurant chains and other local businesses. Working with UTC and The Enterprise Center, Thrive Regional Partnership built tools to help residents within a 16 county-region locate public WiFi, meal pickups and other vital resources.
The mapping project has helped identify key locations for the launch of EPB’s “Quick Connect” hotspots at schools, public housing locations and other sites. The maps have also helped determine the best locations for Hamilton County Schools and the YMCA’s meal delivery services. Some of the “drive-up” WiFi locations are co-located with meal pick-up sites, which see 400 visitors each day. More than 1,500 households have also received free and reduced-cost home internet, with support from EPB, Comcast, Hamilton County Schools, ELLA, Northside Neighborhood House, Benwood, and others.
Expanding connectivity in our community has empowered families to keep their children engaged in online learning, but it has also done so much more, enabling residents to: telecommute, find information about health care and CDC guidelines, order food, medicine, and other supplies online, participate in the Census, seek small business resources, and apply for financial assistance.