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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Lakeside Academy student Emmett Loylass, 5, completes virtual learning coursework at home on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A new initiative to provide free internet connections for all students receiving free or reduced lunches in Hamilton County has already connected more 4,400 local households since the program was announced in late July, extending free broadband connections to more than 6,800 low- and moderate-income students in the Chattanooga area.

EPB President David Wade told directors of the Electric Power Board Friday that crews from EPB Fiber Optics are working to connect the internet service to households as part of the new HCS Ed Connect program.

"We're seeing a big impact already on the number of students who have Internet access that didn't have access before," Wade said. "I know that we would like to be faster than that, but we are moving along at a good clip."

Wade said he expects it will take several months to connect most of the 28,500 students in Hamilton County schools that qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches at Hamilton County public schools served by EPB.

"I knew going into this program that it wasn't something we could do overnight, but just in the past few weeks we've made really good progress," he said.

EPB is providing the free internet connections to households with eligible students as part of an $8.2 million, 10-year funding commitment from the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County government, Hamilton County schools, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation and the Smart City Venture Fund, which includes Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Footprint Foundation and Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation.

Under the HCS Ed Connect program, households with students who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals receive for free a router installed in their home that would provide at least 100 Mbps of internet service with no data caps. Previously, EPB's cheapest option for such internet service was $26.99 a month under its NetBridge Student Discount program, which EPB launched in 2015.

EPB Vice President J. Ed. Marston said many of those enrolled in the free program were already EPB Fiber Optic customers and were converted to the free option while others had EPB connections to their home from when there was previous EPB internet service to that address. Marston said the city-owned utility is working to schedule service connections at other households signing up for the HCS Ed Connect and he urged those with questions or needing to schedule service connections to EPB at (423) 648-1372.

HCS Ed Connect was recognized by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday night as the winner of the Digital Divide Project award.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Hamilton County is the first community in the country to "bridge the digital divide" in education by providing free internet to all students in need. Internet connectivity has been vital as more instruction is moved online amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"High-speed broadband is a baseline need for American families," Berke said when HCS Ed Connect was announced this summer.

As a result of the virus, about 15,000 students in Hamilton County public schools have opted for entirely virtual classrooms and most of the other students are getting at least some instruction virtually, particularly when individual schools shut down their classrooms for cleaning when instances of the COVID-19 virus infect staff or students.

But many households still lack adequate broadband access for virtual instruction programs offered in local schools. According to U.S. Census data, households living in cities with the highest poverty rates are up to 10 times more likely than those in higher-earning communities not to have fixed broadband at home.

Aided by the free internet program for eligible students, Marston said EPB Fiber Optics now provides telecommunications service — either internet, video, telephone or some combination of the three — to about 115,000 customers, or more than 70% of the customers served by EPB's electric system.

Comcast also offers its Internet Essentials program at $9.99 a month, which it began in 2011, to nearly 30,000 low-income residents in the Chattanooga region. For two months this spring during the worst of the coronavirus-related shutdown of schools and many businesses, Comcast offered the service for free.

Comcast offers its Internet Essentials program to those who are on public assistance programs such as Social Security, food stamps, the national school lunch program, housing assistance, disability assistance or Medicaid. Internet Essentials is the largest broadband adoption program of its kind in the United States, with connections to 8 million low-income Americans.

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

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