How One City Came Together to Provide Free Broadband To Those Who Needed It Most - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 425

This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation and Choice at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Evan Freeman, Director of Government Relations at the city’s municipal electric and fiber utility, EPB, and Deb Socia, President of the Enterprise Center.

Together, the group discusses the recent landmark announcement by Hamilton County Schools of HCS EdConnect, in which the schools, local government, EPB, and local stakeholders and philanthropic organizations have come together and made it possible to connect all school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the district to free 100 Mbps symmetrical Internet access for the next ten years. The initiative will include not only 32,000 students but their families as well, and is the first of its kind in the United States — a success story at using a city-wide network to bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged students, and a decisive move to respond to unequal Internet access during a worldwide public health crisis.

Jill, Evan, and Deb discuss the challenges of setting up the partnerships that made it happen, overcoming obstacles — including dealing with tens of thousands of new customers with unique skills and needs — and how they managed to pull it off.

This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Jill Levine: You know we're evolving. And I think there's sort of a different future because we're figuring out what blended learning looks like.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 425 of the community broadband bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher talks with Jill Levine, chief of innovation and school choice at Hamilton County schools. Along with Evan Freeman, director of government relations at EPB. The city of Chattanooga is electric power and fiber internet utility, as well as Deb Socia, president of The Enterprise Center.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Together, the group discusses the recent landmark announcement by Hamilton County schools of HCS EdConnect in which the schools, local government, EPB, and local stakeholders and philanthropic organizations have made it possible to connect all school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the district to free a hundred megabits symmetrical internet access for the next 10 years. Jill, Evan and Deb discuss the challenges, of setting up the partnerships that made it happen, overcoming obstacles, including dealing with tens of thousands of new customers with unique skills and needs and how they managed to pull it off. Now here's Christopher talking with Jill Levine, Evan Freeman, and Deb Socia.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the community broadband bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for local self reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And today I am just so excited to talk about one of the best announcements of the year. It's been a hard year and we have just a great announcement to discuss today. We're going to talk about what's happening in Chattanooga, around the Hamilton County schools with internet access, getting out to all the kids in the free and reduced lunch program. And if I made any mistakes, it will be cleaned up shortly. On the show today, we're going to have Jill Levine, who is the Chief of Innovation and school choice at Hamilton County schools. Welcome to the show.

Jill Levine: Thank you. Great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm so excited to talk about this and I'm glad that we don't only have Deb.

Christopher Mitchell: We'll introduce in a second. Thank you. I get to throw shade at Deb after all these years.

Jill Levine: You love Deb, though.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. That's why, because I'm sure I'll get negative emails for even that little bit of shade. We also have Evan Freeman, the director of government relations at EPB, the municipal electric power and wonderful internet provider in Chattanooga. Welcome to the show, Evan.


Evan Freeman: Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: And we finally, then we have Deb Socia, who's been on several times. Who is an inspiration to everyone working in this field. President of the enterprise center now in Chattanooga. Hey Deb.

Deb Socia: Hi, Chris. Great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much. And I will give full credit to Deb for pulling this panel together. When I told her that I wanted to talk to the folks that could give us the best information she pointed out, Jill and Evan. So we're going to mostly have them fill in the gaps. But ... so Jill, I just want to start. I teased this and I think most of the listeners who are following this had already heard, but this is just remarkable that so many kids now will have home internet access, basically all of them in the schools, we would assume. So I want to ask you first, how excited are the Hamilton County schools to be at the forefront of this?

Jill Levine: Oh, well it's so exciting. I mean, what this means to us is that 17,000 low income households that previously weren't able to connect to virtual learning at speeds, at high enough speeds to access videos and zoom. And those sorts of things are now going to be able to, so principals all over the district are saying to me, I know this family who was ... We closed down school on March 13th last year and really have we're disconnected. Even though with great efforts to stay connected with families, a lot of kids were disconnected from learning. And so families are now being hooked up to the high speed internet and kids are able to learn from home safely as they need to be right now. So people are very excited about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent.

Jill Levine: And I should say it's a 10 year commitment. So this isn't something we're just doing for a couple of weeks or a couple months. This is a commitment that our community has made for the next 10 years.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So one and two year olds can be excited about it too.

Jill Levine: Good point.

Christopher Mitchell: So Evan, I have to say, I first met Harold, the priest, more than 10 years ago. And at that time already EPB seemed like a place to work where people had real mission and drive. And I have to assume there's a lot of pride in bringing this. This kind of level of connectivity to the entire community now. Just give me a sense of how people feel about it over at the electric power board.


Evan Freeman: Everybody's excited about it. It's been pretty cool cause I'm fairly new to the company, and one of the big things since I've been at EPB that I've learned is there's a huge emphasis on community engagement and a huge emphasis on just being there, being a good corporate steward. Being able to assist in closing the digital divide. That's something that's been on every member of the staff. That's been on the front of their mind for so long. And just to be a part of this opportunity to jump in and help the community is huge.

Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. And Deb, as a former principal, I assume you hate children. So you're probably not a very enthusiastic about this.

Deb Socia: You know how much I care about this Chris, and I have to say, we're really lucky to have such great partnerships. And what I love is not only is everyone passionate about making sure children are connected, they're passionate about working together to make it happen. So we are finding ways around any problem that presents itself to ensure that every child is connected.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about this now, exactly. Jill, tell us exactly how this works. So for people who've only heard a couple of references about it. You said 17,000 families, but what is actually happening here?

Jill Levine: First of all, our community partners came together determined to reduce the digital divide and raised millions of dollars. So that happened first in order to make this happen, and I think it's important to know that's the Chattanooga way. People come together from all different areas and think about how can we make things possible and collaborate and continue to collaborate while we figure it out. This is not easy. And that's why a lot of places haven't figured it out, is it's just easy to do.

Christopher Mitchell: No one. I mean ...

Jill Levine: Right, no one has figured it out. No one's figured it out with the speed that we have with our internet, which is a hundred megabits per second with symmetrical upload and download speed. So for us, from the school district, what that means is that we had to identify which families qualified. At this point. We have emailed all of those families, if they didn't respond at first, we've emailed again and again. We've now sent text messages to all those families to fill out a survey. So far we've had about 10,000 students opt in and then we share that information with EPB and they schedule installation. And I think we're getting close to 3000 kids now being part of the program. It's going to take us some time to get to the 17,000 because you've got to wire and install infrastructure and all of those kinds of things to make it happen, but more and more kids are getting connected every day and being able to access high quality learning from home.


Christopher Mitchell: Evan, I have to ask about this cause there's communities that have 17,000 homes in entirety and it takes them years to connect them. How are you all preparing to do this?

Evan Freeman: Well, we have the infrastructure, the fiber structure that was laid years ago, and you referenced that back in 2010 and now it's just identifying those homes that have not had access that you could put the ONTs onto their homes and provide routers. So right now we're just working through that and identify the families that need that service.

Christopher Mitchell: Now this is something that ... Let me, Deb raised her hand.

Deb Socia: I'm just going to say these things don't happen without amazing people like Jill and Evan, but I also want to compliment the elected officials here. Mayor Berke and Mayor Coppinger the city and the county. David Wade from EPB. Dr. Johnson from the school department. The fact that they are all so committed to this is part of the reason this is going to work, because every single problem that comes up, we find a solution, right? And I think that that's part of why this will be successful. And I am so convinced it will be.

Christopher Mitchell: That's a good point, Deb. And I think it's worth noting as well, that not only do people in Chattanooga, particularly in this technical space work together in that way, we don't see people demanding credit. I look at the kind of leadership of David Wade does a lot of really great things. Mayor Berke, they're doing this stuff cause they know it's right, and I also have worked in enough communities where I see really good ideas that don't come to fruition because the head of public works is not interested or something like that, and so I think it's really worth highlighting that in the community. But Evan, I do want to raise the question of, this is something that is going to cost millions of dollars. And I'm just curious if you can give us a sense of why the electric utility couldn't just do it itself. Chattanooga is one of the most successful fiber networks. What are the restrictions that would have stopped you from trying to just do this in house?


Evan Freeman: Since we're a municipal electric company, we're restricted to give away, because the state law, we can't provide any service for less than what it costs us to put it out there. So in that case, we had to raise the money. So in our initial conversations, when we got the number that is going to be about 17,000 households, we figured out what that would cost. If we had put in the ONTs on the homes and building out fiber in areas that ... Build into the home and in areas that don't have it. So that's when we came up with $8.2 million and we had to go out to our community partners and to piggyback on what Deb said, that every person that we've talked to, as soon as we talked to the city mayor and the County mayor and with our foundations which really stepped up big time, and some of our corporate partners, once we tell them, hey, this is what we need at everybody. It was all hands on deck. Everybody threw money in and made a big commitment right away.

Christopher Mitchell: And so, Jill, if you could step back to the beginning, I'm curious, when did the ... Who came up with the idea first or kind of at what point did you become aware of it?

Jill Levine: I became aware of it when our superintendent who is quite visionary started saying, yeah, I've got another call with David. Wait, got to go. Got another call with David Wade. And they were in conversation all the time trying to figure out how to make this work. And then other community partners, our mayors, like I said, we have a city mayor and a County mayor, the enterprise center, the foundations just started to think about, how can we make this work? So, as has been said, it's incredible collaboration among visionary people who you're exactly right, no, one's stepping forward and saying, we take full credit for this because every person had a part or every organization has had a part in bringing this forward. And so then once we sort of got it going, we developed a collaborative team of those on this call and, several others who meet weekly just to collaborate, to problem solve, to develop structures, and data tracking systems and all this. All the kind of details that we have to have. Communications, all those things to make this work for the longterm.

Christopher Mitchell: And I'm curious about that. What are some of those things? Cause I feel like for a lot of us, we just think, Oh, well, no problem. 17,000 families. Why not just connect them? And of course the schools will know exactly how to handle this all.


Jill Levine: Yeah. So yeah, there are so many details. The outreach to families has been really important. We cast the widest net first through an email survey and then text messages, but it's going to come down to personal contact and some paper-pencil with some families to get them signed on and get them engaged. That has to be in multiple languages. And we have to build trust with some of our families to get them to want to sign on as well. So there are a lot of pieces related to that. We have families in our school district who're, outside the service area. So we also are our school board approved last night, some additional funding to buy hotspots. We also built into our fundraising money for hotspots. And so some families will have those instead of the EPB service, just because they're outside of the service area.

Jill Levine: We had to think about communications and you know, how do we get the word out there? How do we help 79 schools know how to help families who are trying to opt into this program? And then a system, a data tracking system of if people respond to the survey, how does it populate into a system that we can then share with EPB, that they can then share back with us to tell us, when a family is actually installed and ready to go. So it's just, it's very elaborate and complex. And there are a lot of hurdles that we've had to work through together to overcome. But as I said, I think people are excited about what this is going to mean for kids, particularly underserved kids who have been part of this digital divide and have haven't had a connection. And now we're bridging to all of these families. And I do think just great equity move in our community. And again, it's 10 years. It's not something that we're doing until there's a vaccine for the Corona virus is a 10 year commitment to our families. And I think that's really inspiring in many ways.

Christopher Mitchell: I agree. You just reminded me of the 10 years. You had said earlier about the hundred megabits that is without a doubt, one of the most generous programs we've seen for a program like this for low income families, Chattanooga's network runs at 10 gigs for the highest end, which is the fastest in the world for any sort of residential connection. So Evan, I'm curious about the kind of costs that you're anticipating. So you mentioned there's a significant cost to get all the connections out there. I would guess you're also going to see additional costs because presumably even if the school devices that are handed out work all the time, families that are going to be on these connections will probably have other devices that may be older. They might be, have a little less literacy. They might need more customer service support. Have you had to prepare the utility to just deal with an influx of customers that may need more help?


Evan Freeman: Certainly. I mean, a lot of the big picture is a lot of the folks are already our electric customer. And if, if we have a partnership with the enterprise center then they're going to be really handling a lot of that technical end, and customer service. So we're really looking forward to partner with them and how that all is going to connect.

Christopher Mitchell: And Deb I wanted to throw you a question. I think you might have something you want to ask me as well, or you may have a point you want to make, but I was excited to know that you're a big part of this because I'm sure you have some sort of a plan for digital literacy and things like that in terms of how you're going to handle making sure that it's not just the kids that get to use the network, but the adults feel comfortable with it. And wherever those barriers along those lines.

Deb Socia: Yeah. We're already working on it. And I actually spoke with David Wade this week about a plan for how we're going to manage some of the extra service calls and I anticipate is going to happen, right? I mean, that's already quite honestly, EPB takes calls like I don't know how to do my email, and they help people solve those problems, which is pretty amazing. You don't hear a utility or an ISP doing that very often, but we imagine this is going to be at scale, quite a lot of calls. So we're working on a plan for that.

Deb Socia: We've already created in anticipation of this. A whole bunch of tech goes home shorts. We're calling them. So they're just short videos about how do you get on zoom? How do you use the particular programs that the district is using for student learning, at home? How do you use those programs? How do you use the school district portal? They use power school. How do you get on to that? How do you use it as a parent. All of these are things we will be working out as we move forward and for sure, it's kind of a powerful collaboration between everybody involved in finding those solutions.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, when you say you're making these videos, first of all, that's the enterprise center, right? You're doing that. And then how are you making them available? So people will know where to look for them and things like that.


Deb Socia: Yeah, that's obviously a challenge because if you're not connected at home and all of a sudden you're connected, how do you know where to go? Right? And so there is paperwork. That's going home with folks about how to connect to these resources, but also talking with EPB and with local public television about putting them on television, about making them available by sending it out by email, because if somebody is using their phone, they can certainly use their phone to watch that short video, right? And so figuring out all the ways we can do that in addition to empowering our tech goes home class to be online, which it now is. We are doing a maximum number of courses this fall for families, schools, as many as we can possibly manage. And I think that's the challenge is meeting the need for information and devices, as well as for home access. And I feel like we're pretty well positioned to figure all that out.

Christopher Mitchell: Jill, I'm curious if there are challenges within the classroom. You're at the forefront now of where teachers could theoretically assume that every kid is going to have high quality access. Now you can't assume everyone's going to be on the same network because some families may have chosen perhaps foolishly to go with a arrival in the marketplace. But I'm curious, is there some sort of level of preparing for the out of school that you're able to do, or are you able to forgo certain worrying about access? Like how does this, how is this different in the classroom?

Jill Levine: Hats off to our teachers who right now, were running school on an AB schedule and we have about 40% of our students full time at home. And then we have the other 60% who half are coming on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday. So teachers are teaching kids in all different ways right now, and they have different kids in their classrooms on different days. And we're really dependent on the internet working and all of our tech tools working. So that we can figure all of this out. It's incredibly challenging, but I've seen some real success. And you know, of course this program, the HCS ed connect powered by APB is what we call the program, is making this more possible for more kids. So we, last spring, when we went to at home learning for 45,000 kids, one of our biggest fears was that we were going to lose them, that we're going to lose track of them.


Jill Levine: And we very quickly set up a tracker just to see what's ... How many kids have we not heard from in any given school. Where are they, how can we reach out to them? And we were keeping up with that. And a lot of it was because they didn't have internet access or quality internet access. So again, this program is going to make a huge difference. It's already making a difference and we're really excited about that. And I think it means a lot for the future. The kids won't like this, but snow days or tornado days, which we have down here in Tennessee sometimes, or kids that have had to have surgery and can't come to school, you know, we're, we're evolving. And I think there's sort of a different future for all of those things because we're figuring out what blended learning looks like.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, that last bit is fascinating as we think about the implications, especially as I would expect that there will not be a situation for several years in which I think school districts aren't worried about, perhaps even just for a month, having a hotspot or something like that. Once we go through this problem, we're going to have a virus popup here or there, I think, and now we'll be able to deal with it. Now, Evan, I'm curious, as a government relations person, I feel like one of your jobs is to just really have a sense of what other people are talking about and being networked and things like that. And how are people reacting to this announcement?

Evan Freeman: Everybody's been excited about it. Again, the County and city, including the city council County commission, the school board, all the members were. Everybody's been really excited about it. And it's been a lot talked about a lot. I mean, even on the state level, there's just been some interest in how did you get that done and congrats to Chattanooga for doing it. So it's really gotten a lot of good feedback and a lot of interests from, from around the state.

Christopher Mitchell: And have you had any feedback from folks who have traditionally been a bit hostile to Chattanooga with this network program? I mean, I know Senator Bowling has been a champion, but there's been others in the legislature who haven't been as supportive of what you guys and other municipalities have done.

Evan Freeman: Sure. I think with COVID and the situation that we're in right now, that everybody's in, I think everybody realizes the importance of internet access more than any time before. So coming to that realization and adding solutions. We've come up with a solution for schools. Seeing that, I think that's sort of changed the mind, or at least peaked an interest or looked in a direction they haven't looked before.


Christopher Mitchell: Great. I would presume that this is a population of children in part, because of my experience in St. Paul with low income families, that, that presumably have to move around a lot. And is this something, this isn't something where I think in December, you'll be done, I'm presuming this, something you're going to have to, as new kids are coming on, this is an ongoing project for EPB to keep making sure folks are connected. Right?

Evan Freeman: Sure. Yeah. And this will follow the student, no matter what address they go to. And that's something we're working through with enterprise center and with Jill and the school system on tracking and being able to keep up with those addresses as they change.

Christopher Mitchell: Deb.

Deb Socia: And honestly the fact that it's free to the families is enormous. And the fact that if a family is currently paying EPB for service and they are on free and reduced lunch, they still qualify for free, is pretty amazing, right? I mean, I feel like that is a stark difference from what we hear often when we're trying to solve these problems, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And one of the things that I feel like we're starting to see with, I mean, I'll give Comcast credit, although there's plenty of things we can say where we disagree with them. Their $10 a month program has set the bar and it's made a lot of difference in millions of families lives. But one of the things we've seen because of research in that over the years is that $10 a month is not something all families can handle. And so making it free really is that next step that's important to get everyone connected.

Jill Levine: And free and high speed. So if you look at the difference in the speed, if you're at a hundred megabits per second, versus, you know, 25 or whatever the case may be, it's just makes learning more accessible for kids.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I was thinking that if the Octo-mom moved to Chattanooga, all the kids could be zooming in their own classes without a problem on that connection.

Jill Levine: As long as she has eight devices.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Deb Socia: Well, we never have charged children for textbooks, right? Learning has to happen in a way that allows every child access to the resource. And we have always given every child a textbook. And in this case, the learning happens by computer and internet access. And so we must provide equitable opportunities.

Christopher Mitchell: Deb, this is something that I had a little bit of advanced notice on from a certain, friendly little bird in Tennessee. And I knew that at that time there was hope that the money would be raised. And I know the money is still, there's still more money that needs to be raised. There was enough to, to get it going, but can you tell us a little bit about where the money's coming from?


Deb Socia: Sure. We have had such great partners. Great philanthropy locally that has donated also Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Tennessee, the city, the county, the school department, all of them have donated. We still have a delta of a few million dollars. We would love to have more donors consider providing support. And the other thing I would love to see is some funding to do some research. This is such a unique moment in time with such potential for outcomes, not just for the children in the program, but for the whole family. And I would love to have some research done to show how having this access impacts quality of life for all.

Christopher Mitchell: And now I want to hear from Jill and Evan on that, and I want to ask about the indirect benefits that we would expect to see in the community as a result of this. Cause this is something that Deb, you and I have discussed more recently, and I think it is just so important because I don't think people appreciate the return on investment that we will see from bringing high quality connectivity. I mean, there's all kinds of things. Telehealth is one that a lot of people are aware of now that we'll see these benefits from, but Jill, can you give us a sense of what other benefits we might see aside from just better learning opportunities?

Jill Levine: Well, we talk about equity a lot in our community, but a lot of times that's really in the abstract and this is a really concrete way to advance just the whole principle of equity and to provide opportunity for kids who otherwise won't have it, don't have it. So that's one, but also when kids are connected to high quality learning, they learn more and we need a better educated workforce in our community. Want to keep, we want to attract business here. And we want to provide people that are ready to go to work and do a great job for businesses when they move here. So I think this is a great step in the right direction, as far as that goes as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to make a prediction and you can, we can laugh at me. Maybe we'll come back in a couple of years to just, you can laugh at me. I think disciplinary records may go down. I think we may see, I think that kids having something to do. And I mean, it might just be in be video games. I think there's a lot to be said for kids having things in their lives they're really excited about. And in that, keeping them out of trouble. And that's, I think in the schools is a place where I really hope that you'll notice that it happens.


Deb Socia: The other piece of that is that when your parents are engaged, students are much more successful. There's tons of research on that, but also when your parents are engaged and the teachers can communicate more quickly and easily with parents, trust me, discipline issues go down.

Christopher Mitchell: And so Evan, I'm curious what other things you might expect in terms of benefits that we may not expect from this just unprecedented opportunity.

Evan Freeman: Yeah. I think telehealth is going to be huge and especially, I mean, if you're talking about the pandemic we're going through now and the most vulnerable population is that of seniors and low income folks. So being able to now have access to that, another step, down the road could be engaging health care providers to provide better telehealth services and getting those devices in the home. Workforce developments. I think that a big piece, I mean, just a lot of ... I could think of family members off the top of my head that are not going to have to go to the library and apply for a job application and put in a job application. They can do that from home and have the access to do it. And again, just having all this information at your fingertips. The online school for adults, going back to school that all those opportunities just open up.

Christopher Mitchell: That's wonderful. So let me ask Deb, is there any last words that you have for us?

Deb Socia: I will say that I have spent a lot of my life working on this issue and I am thankful to have landed in this place at this time. Being apart of HCS EdConnect, powered by EPB. It is a joy to be involved.

Christopher Mitchell: I believe it. Thank you so much for your time, Evan. I'm a little bit worried. The river has not moved behind you and all this time we've been talking. So you may want to check things out, maybe wizard around.

Evan Freeman: I actually took that picture when I was, I was running so that this is just showing how fast I was going.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you so much. Thank you, Jill. Thank you, Evan.

Evan Freeman: Thanks Chris. Nice talking to you.

Jill Levine: Thank you.

Deb Socia: Thanks, Chris it's always good to see you.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Jill Levine, Evan Freeman, and Deb Socia. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including building local power, local energy rules, and the composting for community podcast. You can access them anywhere. You get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives. If you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at, while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, warm duck shuffle licensed through creative comments. This was episode 425 of the community broadband bits podcast. Thanks for listening.