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Teenage boy working at a desk in his bedroom. / Photo: Getty Images/iStock/monkeybusinessimages

With most students getting at least some of their education this fall online, thousands of low- and moderate-income families in the Chattanooga area are signing up for new discounted internet connections to ensure they have access to the Internet for student learning and achievement.

To help low-income families gain broadband service if they don't have internet access, Chattanooga's biggest internet providers are offering special programs this fall.

EPB launched a program this month to provide free internet connections to any Hamilton County household served by EPB with a student on the free- or reduced-price lunch program, which includes any family with two children making less than $31,284 a year or up to $47,638 a year for a family with four children.

Backed by $8.2 million in city, county and private funds over the next decade, HCS EdConnect provides each eligible home a router and Internet connection with speed up to 100 Mbps.

"At this point, we have nearly 2,000 HCS EdConnect families," EPB spokesman J.Ed. Marston said. "Hamilton County Schools have verified eligibility for about 2,500 additional families who have expressed interest in HCS EdConnect."

There are about 28,500 students on free- or reduced-price lunch programs in Hamilton County.

"Because completing installations for so many customers will take time, EPB encourages families, who have opted-in by completing the two-question survey from Hamilton County Schools, to contact EPB right away to begin the installation process. EPB is ready to take your call anytime at (423) 648-1372," Marston said.

Many of those had previously been using EPB's NetBridge, which charged $26.99 ,and an even bigger number were enrolled in Comcast's Internet Essentials, which was priced $9.99 for students with low and moderate household income. The Comcast program also provides a heavily subsidized computer, and multiple options for digital literacy training. Comcast also gives all Internet Essentials customers its xFi platform, which enables parents to control and manage their children's WiFi connected.

Comcast launched its Internet Essentials in 2011, which has become the nation's largest low-income Internet adoption program and has connected millions of people to the Internet. In Chattanooga, Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 30,000 low-income residents to the Internet in the past nine years.

Comcast has teamed up this fall with schools in Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Arlington, Virginia to provide internet service, usually at no cost, to more than 200,000 qualified students, similar to the program EPB is offering in Chattanooga.

"We've seen firsthand that low-cost Internet access is an important part of improving digital equity and creating positive opportunities for low-income students and families," said Dana Strong, president of Comcast's Xfinity consumer services. "Through this new partnership program, we are accelerating the efforts of cities, schools, philanthropies, nonprofits, and private citizens to collaborate and open the doors of Internet access for more families in need."

In Chattanooga, Mayor Andy Berke said the city-owned EPB offered Chattanooga the chance to leapfrog over the Comcast discounted program and extend free internet service for low- and moderate-income families at no cost to the participants. The city and county are each providing $1.5 million to help support the EPB program over the next decade while other major foundations and private groups are providing the rest of the needed financial support.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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