Chattanooga may brag about having the fastest broadband connections to every household in the nation, but even in "Gig City" many households still lack Internet connections and access to web-based health, education and consumer services.
To help bridge that digital divide, the federal utility established nearly a century ago to electrify the South is aiding local initiatives across the Tennessee Valley to expand broadband service, including in Chattanooga's Orchard Knob neighborhood, where census data indicate 28% of residents still lack broadband access.
As part of a new two-year, $3 million Connected Communities initiative announced this week by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Orchard Knob Collaborative of public and private identities secured a $600,000 grant to expand access to internet connectivity - as well as digital technology and services - to improve residents' health and quality of life.
The pilot program aims to reach 1,000 residents in the Orchard Knob and surrounding neighborhoods by installing an additional 21 public Wi-Fi sites as part of the EPB QuickConnect public Wi-Fi network and making other investments in the neighborhood. The Orchard Knob program is among nine projects TVA opted to fund out of more than 40 applicants across TVA's seven-state region.
Local organizers hope the Orchard Knob project can ultimately serve as a model for similar public Wi-Fi initiatives in other communities.
"While the pilot for this program is taking place in Orchard Knob, our goal is to develop a replicable model that can provide these same services in any neighborhood across the Tennessee Valley region - and, hopefully, beyond it," said Deb Socia, president of The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, which is coordinating the collaborative with HCA Parkridge Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, EPB, OK Neighborhood Watch Association, green/spaces and Design Studios.
In an emailed statement Thursday, Scotia said the different agencies working together will ensure the expanded access to broadband is used to improve health, education and even environmental and housing quality.
"The holistic nature of this work means active involvement from neighborhood leaders is imperative in order to allow the community to guide the ways in which we collaboratively work to meet their needs," Scotia said.
TVA offers pandemic aid
TVA, which generates nearly $11 billion a year in electricity sales, has used a portion of its earnings during the pandemic for rate relief and to aid nonprofit programs to aid those hurt by COVID-19.
TVA's Connected Communities will fund pilot projects that leverage technologies to address select challenges, including broadband access, environmental risk monitoring, digital literacy training and next-generation career options. The selected projects were chosen by local governments, power companies and community-based organizations.
"We recognize that access to technology and other critical services is the foundation for success in the modern-day world," Joe Hoagland, TVA's vice president of innovation and research, said in an announcement of the grant recipients this week. "Our Connected Communities initiative will help close the equity gap in communities across our region, offering broad-ranging, innovative solutions that will continue to make life better for the people we serve."
Orchard Knob services
The Orchard Knob program funded by TVA will provide air quality sensors to detect environmental problems in homes and expand the Tech Goes Home programs to help educate more people on how to effectively use the web. Parkridge hospital, which helped launch the collaborative to offer better detection of unhealthy conditions at home and to improve telehealth services around its main campus, has pledged to provide 1,000 telehealth appointments or visits, using the Wi-Fi connections.
"Ensuring that our neighbors who receive care from Parkridge return to homes that aid their recovery is essential, and it's why we first started the Orchard Knob Collaborative," Parkridge Health System President Tom Ozburn said in an email statement Thursday. "We're excited by the way our initial partnerships have grown, and by this holistic Smart City approach to public health and quality of life."
Housing problems identified by the program participants can be addressed with energy conservation measures and home repairs and upgrades, organizers said.
"Housing is an essential social determinant of health," Habitat Vice President of Development Phil Trammell said in a statement. "Habitat has been working with the Orchard Knob collaborative to make vital improvements to owner-occupied homes since February of 2020, completing seven projects despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. This grant allows us to scale that work significantly, and to support an entire community of homeowners."
Trammel said in a phone interview he expects the grant will help fund a couple of dozen heating. ventilation and air conditioning units at Orchard Knob homes in need of such upgrades.
Work on the project is expected to begin in early March. Orchard Knob residents interested in getting involved can reach out immediately by sending an email to email@example.com.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.