Everyone should have access to technology. Without a computer and the internet (and the skills to use them), basic tasks can now feel nearly impossible. Even so, many Americans — including many Chattanoogans — struggle to use technology and don’t have a home internet connection or computer.
The “digital inclusion” movement aims to ensure that everyone, including those in the most disadvantaged communities, is able to use and access technology. During Digital Inclusion Week Oct. 4 – 8, communities across the country are raising awareness of the digital divide and discussing how we can bridge it.
While Chattanooga does have a digital divide, our community has shown enormous commitment to closing it, and we have already made impressive progress. For the last two years, Chattanooga and Hamilton County have together made it on a short list of U.S communities considered “Digital Inclusion Trailblazers,” and our efforts have been highlighted in Brookings, Vox, US News and World Report, and other platforms. Capitalizing on significant government and philanthropic investment, as well as EPB’s ubiquitous fiber optic network, our community has invested in a multifaceted approach to closing the digital divide.
Closing the digital divide in education — for good
In 2020, our region launched one of the most ambitious digital inclusion programs in the nation. HCS EdConnect, powered by EPB, brings no-cost home internet to any economically challenged family with students in Hamilton County Schools. In its first year, more than one-third of all Hamilton County Schools students enrolled, and that number is expected to increase even further. Funders have committed to running the program for at least a decade.
The home access offered by EdConnect builds on Hamilton County Schools’ existing one-to-one laptop program. The program, which is now in its fourth year, ensures that every student in the district third grade and up has access to a computer.
Connecting the community
Since 2015, Chattanooga and Hamilton County have sponsored more than 5,500 individuals through a program aimed at increasing digital skills and technology access at home. The Enterprise Center’s program, Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, has partnered with more than 100 community organizations (churches, schools, etc.) to teach basic tech skills, provide students with a subsidized laptop or tablet, and help them sign up for low-cost or free internet.
In addition to increasing technology use at home, our community has invested in making public WiFi more widely available. There are now more than 160 public WiFi access points, supported by EPB and The City of Chattanooga, which have been installed at transit stops, community centers, and other heavily trafficked areas across the county.
There have been some other innovative approaches to making sure that technology is available in rural parts of Hamilton County. Northside Neighborhood House opened a nonprofit coffeeshop and internet cafe in Soddy Daisy, where residents have access to computers and the internet, as well as case management, educational programming, and other resources.
Meeting the needs of seniors and people with disabilities
There is no “one size fits all” approach to digital inclusion, which is why our community has tailored efforts to meet the needs of specific populations. For instance, programming for seniors has focused on accessing telehealth, as well as online banking and bill pay. Tech Goes Home Chattanooga has worked with the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability (SETAAAD) to offer courses to seniors living in rural areas outside of Hamilton County who depend on online services to perform basic tasks. Similarly, Tech Goes Home has taken a customized approach to serving community members who have disabilities.
Partnering with Signal Centers, Tech Goes Home has created specialized curricula for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and for people with blindness or low vision. Additionally, courses are offered to the families and educators of children who are non-verbal or who have other disabilities. Many of the students served depend on specialized technology to communicate, and receiving this training can have a real impact on basic communication and quality of life. Signal Centers also runs a program to provide such devices to clients, by refurbishing technology and adapting them so that cost is not a barrier in ensuring people have the devices they need to communicate.
Connecting with careers
While much of the digital inclusion programming in our community aims to empower people to participate in everyday digital activities, some educational offerings go a step further, preparing students for careers in technology. Goodwill Industries and Chattanooga State Community College, are each offering Google Certification courses to help develop talent to fill open technology positions in our community. The Chatt State program, IT Skill-up, is an intensive 9-week course that pays students an hourly wage for attendance. The program begins with a Tech Goes Home course, so that students who have little previous experience with technology are able to hit the ground running with the curriculum for the IT Support Google certification.
Smart City — for the people
Digital inclusion is not just about ensuring people can access basic technology, but also, including the public in the development and use of advanced technologies. UTC’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) uses the fiber optic network to study urban life and create solutions to improve health, traffic, safety, and other challenges. Not only does CUIP focus on solutions to improve people’s lives, but it takes the public’s experience into consideration when determining which challenges to focus on.