Should Wi-Fi be viewed as a public utility?
Hamilton County, TN – Throughout the pandemic the Hamilton County School system has been partnering with EPB utility firm to provide free Wi-Fi to economically disadvantaged students.
The program is called HCS EdConnect, and it is working to provide free high-speed Wi-Fi internet access to 18,000 student households in Hamilton County.
Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch will automatically be qualified for the free Wi-Fi access.
When the pandemic threw the Hamilton County School System into shutdowns, the roadblock of getting all students involved in online learning became evident.
“In March, when we very quickly had to close down school and move to virtual learning, the digital inequity became very apparent to us very quickly,” said Jill Levine, chief of innovation and choice for Hamilton County Schools.
“All of a sudden, we had thousands of kids who couldn’t get an education.”, she said.
EPB initially tried to install Wi-Fi hotspots on poles in low-income neighborhoods for drive-up access.
Obviously, this was not an effective mode of delivering internet to the community.
The cost of providing the subsidized Wi-Fi is $15 million over a 10-year period, with the start-up cost at $8.2 million.
Start-up costs were split between the school system, County, and private contributors.
With over 10 years of longevity, this system is not being set up for a temporary pandemic.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke predicts that this will continue to service low-income families as a public utility.
“I can’t imagine that this will ever end,” Berke said. “It’s too impactful, too important… I think this is a model for the country in terms of providing broadband as infrastructure.”
“We don’t make roads available to people only based on their income, nor do we do that with sewers and water mains. If we think of internet as infrastructure, it’s going to change how we distribute it.”