Deb Socia and Free, Fast Internet Access in Chattanooga

Building for Digital Equity

Sean Gonsalves interviews Deb Socia, President and CEO of the Enterprise Center, about Chattanooga's remarkable municipal fiber network, which began offering free, high-speed service to thousands of low-income families during the pandemic under a program called HCS EdConnect. They go on to talk about one of Sean's favorite slogans, "If it isn't affordable, it isn't access." And finally, they discuss some advice for people newly joining digital equity work. 

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Joseph McDade for the music. The song is On the Verge and is used per his Free-Use terms.


Christopher Mitchell (00:05):

Before Sean does his intro, I wanted to make sure that you knew that on June 7th, 2023 at three o'clock Eastern time, the Institute for Local Self Alliance is once again teaming up with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for a building for Digital Equity livestream. It's gonna be great. You should check it out at building for digital Thank you.

Sean Gonsalves (00:29):

Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast, where we talk to people working to expand Internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Go Gonzales talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get Internet access to everyone. Now let's see who we have today.

Sean Gonsalves (01:30):

I am sitting here with Deb Socia. And Deb, why don't you introduce yourself and tell the folks where you're from and what, and, and, and what your affiliation is with the American Enterprise Center. Is it, or No, it's the Enterprise Center.

Deb Socia (01:43):

Just the enterprise Center. So I am the president and CEO of the Enterprise Center which is an organization that spends its time really working in the space where technology and equity come together. So if there's a technological intervention, we wanna make sure that it helps everyone. So we do a lot of work on digital equity, workforce development, lots of work in making sure people have home broadband and can use it well.

Sean Gonsalves (02:15):

So let's set the scene for folks that are not really familiar with, with Chattanooga. And I mean, may a lot of our listeners probably have heard of Chattanooga, because it is the golden child of municipal networks. It's the home of, it is the America's first gig city, I think is the is the moniker. So tell, share with folks a bit about Chattanooga and a bit about the history of, of, of, of the, of the network there and, and, and, and then your relationship to E P B fiber.

Deb Socia (02:45):

Sure. So the Electric Power Board is our municipal utility. And over the years they have been really innovative. Not something that utilities typically are, but they are very innovative and they are always looking at the future. And so when they received some funding to build out a smart grid for their electric system, they said, Hey, we could actually build out two residents. And they did. And so a little over 10 years ago, we had gig symmetrical, and then five years ago we had five gigs symmetrical, and now we've got 25 gigs symmetrical, and that is available to every single house in business in EPB's footprint. And it's amazing service on top of it. I think the part that people forget is that when it's locally owned, when you call and say, Hey, something's broken, It's somebody, you know, answers the phone. In fact, I called recently because my Internet wasn't working, and when I picked up, when I, when the guy picked up the phone, I looked out my window, an E p B truck was already there. So they knew it wasn't working, and they came out to fix it before I even realized. So

Sean Gonsalves (03:55):

There, there, there's no on the phone on hold two or three hours, and then you make an appointment, right. Two weeks down the road between, you know, and we'll show up sometime between nine and five kind of a .

Deb Socia (04:04):

Right. It's just really it. So in addition to being great service, it's also, I mean, it's great to have the gig symmetrical in my home, but I know that if I have a problem with it, they're gonna come and help me.

Sean Gonsalves (04:17):

It's one of those things that I hear anecdotally from a lot of folks that are, are, are fortunate enough to live in places that have a, a well-run municipal network. Is, is, is is that customer service piece and the difference that it, that it really, that it really makes in the experience. Right. you know now when I tell folks about Chattanooga and E P b, there's two things that I like to say. One is that it's incredible to me that I believe the network was built about 2010, and the city invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $220 million. And then there was an independent study that Professor Lobo did that found that the city has reaped 2.7 billion with a b return on investment as a result of that network because of all of the economic development and, and, and, and what have you that that network has, has, has, has brought to the, to the city.

Deb Socia (05:10):

Right. And it, it has brought entrepreneurs, it's brought businesses, it's brought people who like to work from home. but it's also gotten a lot of attention from projects that are OR&L, the National Lab with nsf. So a lot of grants and research can be done in Chattanooga that really can't be done anywhere else in the country.

Sean Gonsalves (05:33):

Right, right. And certainly, you know, people say, well, you know, every community's unique. And that's true. And a lot of cities that have municipal networks have an existing municipal utility in place. But, it's still, it to me, it is a demonstration that, that, that cities and towns are capable of building and operating their networks at a, at, at a high level. And it's not really a question of technology, of course, because the, the technology that's being used here is as advanced as, you know, is at the leading edge of, of, of technology in terms of Internet connectivity. But it's really, I I think about political will and, and making decisions within a community of what folks want to do. So it's not to say that everybody can or should do what Chattanooga did. Now, let me just quickly say that my favorite thing to tell people about Chattanooga is something that you've been very involved with. Tell folks about H C S Ed Connect and how that came to be and, and, and, and, and what it is.

Deb Socia (06:36):

Right. We call it H C S Ed Connect, powered by E P B because E P B is an amazing partner in this work. And what happened was when the pandemic hit and our children were, were home for school, we realized that we had to do something. We knew many of them were not connected, and it was all about cost. Right? and so how are we going to make sure that we had ubiquitous access to education and educational opportunities for every child in the district? And so the city, the county, E P B, our organization, local foundations Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee Foundation, all got together, raised the money we need built out what we needed to build out and connected 16,000 children who are still connected today and have free home Internet with a minimum speed of a hundred megabit symmetrical for the next 10 years,

Sean Gonsalves (07:39):

For a decade. It's incredible. I mean, now listen, the, the American Connectivity Program is a, is an important program, and it's helping millions of households right now get online. But I think the thing that is interesting about the program that you're talking about, HCS Ed Connect, powered by E P B, is that this was put in place before ACP was even a thought. It was. But talk a little bit about how the, the, the, the, the local control of a network put you in a position to do things like that.

Deb Socia (08:15):

I, I can't imagine that if we didn't have a local municipal utility that owned the network, we'd have gotten the kind of quick action sort of taking that great big giant leap. It's not necessarily something people do unless their vision like EPB's is, is about community support. How do we make this community a better place? And so having all these people who cared about that in the same space at the same time, creating a program that actually has been, I think, stellar and quite unique in the country. I think, you know, acp, we're still have folks that we're signing up for that. We have a full-time connectivity ambassador who is connecting people to HCS Ed Connect to the low cost ACP plan, but also to some of the other low-cost plans. And that's primarily because some of the projects don't support certain individuals depending on your status.

Sean Gonsalves (09:18):

Oh, okay. I gotcha. I gotcha. Now, as I understand it, and, and correct me if I'm wrong, it wasn't really easy necessarily initially to set up HCS Ed Connect and the way you had to go about it, because as I understand law and Tennessee eeb fiber was, is is prohibited from offering it free service or something like that. Can you explain

Deb Socia (09:37):

That? They, they are prohibited by state law from offering service at a price that is lower than it costs them to provision that service.

Sean Gonsalves (09:46):

That's it.

Deb Socia (09:46):

And so we were able to get creative around the funding. We raised over $8 million to help us put in place this project. That being said, E P B has been the most amazing partner to work with on these projects. And I think in the end we couldn't have done it without a forward thinking really deeply connected and passionate leader like David Wade at EPB.

Sean Gonsalves (10:16):

Now to 2023 is shaping up to be, and really last year as well. But this year, a banner year for broadband, I, you know, I didn't coined the phrase, but the broadband vacation of, of the, of the country not so much an issue in Chattanooga, but, but it's much more on folks radar in terms of the essential nature of having access to reliable, quality, affordable high speed Internet. And but so, but I'm wondering in, in, in, in, in your eyes, what are some of the challenges that you're dealing with right now, and how do you see the, you know, these next few months, this next year kind of unfolding on that front?

Deb Socia (10:59):

Well, you know, some, some of the concerns that I have. Are this sort of conversation which pits rural against urban, right? Like, I keep hearing this is an urban problem. No, it's a rural problem. No, it's both, right? and if we're only gonna focus on rural, we're gonna miss the folks who are redlined, digitally redlined in our cities, and also the folks who can't afford connectivity in our cities. I think those are equal problems that we have to address and that we should join together and find solutions. A lot of those solutions that are going to be built out now need that city in order to have the density they need. In order to be able to do the rural area. Let's think about this much more universally. Let's think about it as a collective instead of an individual. Right.

Sean Gonsalves (11:47):

It's such a good point. And you're right. I mean, when you hear that term digital divide, I think for a lot of people, they, they think of it in terms of rural versus urban, and certainly in rural areas, the, the physical infrastructure may be lacking, right. And there, and there is certainly a need to build that infrastructure, but just in terms of, of the sheer numbers of people who, who, it may be for a different reason, but do not have access to high speed Internet. The sheer numbers of, of folks, there's more folks in in urban centers that don't have home Internet access than, than there are in, in, in, in rural America. And it's not to say that one's more important than the other, and the reasons why are certainly different, but I think you, you know, you're hitting the nail right on the head that look at these, these things in a much more universal way is important.

Deb Socia (12:33):

Right. we want everybody connected. This isn't about some. And I think we, the other thing that concerns me is our definition of who's served and who's not. Because if we had high speed Internet and in an urban setting, but the cost was prohibitive, it's the same thing as not having the infrastructure. Right. The outcome for that family is gonna be the same. So we've gotta think about it more holistically, and we have to think about it as a collective. I think the country has to, this is a moment in time, and if we don't take advantage of this moment in time, it's never coming back around again. So we better do this. Right. So

Sean Gonsalves (13:14):

It, it, it isn't hyperbole to say that this is a once in a generation investments that are being made and a once in a generation opportunity. and I don't know who who first said it, but they were so Right. When they say, if it's not affordable, it's not accessible.

Deb Socia (13:26):

Exactly. Not, that's been the one of the bigger challenges in urban settings,

Sean Gonsalves (13:31):

The, the affordability piece. Yeah. For sure. For sure. Now last but not least I be, before I let you go for for folks that are sort of entering th this space in terms of digital inclusion work, and, and they're in, they're, they may be in a community that, you know, that doesn't have a municipal network but they want to see what they can do to, you know, to tackle this challenge in their community. Do you have any like, advice or, or, or what would you say to folks like in that situation?

Deb Socia (13:59):

I, I think people who are just starting out need to really pause and ask the community, what do you need? What are your barriers? How can I help you overcome those barriers? And then draw up a plan based on that. I think the, the issue often is that people walk in thinking they know what the community needs and they don't always. I would say the other thing about the digital inclusion space, which is evidenced by this great conference, is that folks who are working in this space are happy to help other folks working in this space. Ask questions, seek advice, you know, attend conferences, attend, join the national Digital Inclusion Alliance. Start listening and meeting and, and learning, and take advice from those folks that have been there and done that to make your job easier. we can beg and borrow and use information from each other to improve outcomes in a more universal way.

Sean Gonsalves (15:03):

That's terrific. That's terrific. Well said. And on that note, I'm gonna thank you for allowing us to steal a little bit of your time.

Deb Socia (15:08):

Thank you so much, John.

Sean Gonsalves (15:13):

We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor, please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing Finally, we'd like to thank joseph for the song on the Verge.