Spotlight Exclusives

Has Chattanooga’s high-speed internet project helped the poor?

Daniel Jackson Daniel Jackson, posted on

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. ‑ Fifteen years ago, the information that could help a person escape poverty lay in the phonebook or the local paper. Within the classified section, for example, readers could skim for jobs or housing.

Back in 2000, 48 percent of adults were not online, according to the Pew Research Center. But over the years, access to the internet has grown to become a significant factor in helping someone rise out of poverty.

“When was the last time you picked up the classified section of the newspaper or even saw a phone book? All of that is now electronic,” said Jens Christensen, executive director of Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

When it comes to the story of the development of the Web, this mid-sized city nestled in the ridges of East Tennessee made a name for itself by announcing in September 2010 that the internet provided by its government-owned power company would feature crackling-fast broadband speeds of a gigabyte a second—the first American city to offer those speeds.

That commitment, however, has not lifted the fortunes of everyone in the city equally. Today, Chattanooga boasts of an innovation district that nurtures startups and feeds overall economic growth;  the city bills itself as “Gig City.” But walk a few blocks from downtown, past the co-working spaces and third-wave coffee shops, and residents begin to face a different problem: connecting to the internet at all.

Chattanooga and other cities that have boosted local broadband speed are still grappling with a digital divide that persists despite boosted economic growth. “I think the key for a person in poverty is simply the access itself, not necessarily is it the fastest in the world,” Christensen said. “But surely the gig has an effect on industry growing, which should create opportunity.”

At the Community Kitchen, an upstairs day center has four computers for homeless Chattanoogans to use to search for housing, employment, or to connect with family and employers over social media.

“If you don’t have access to that information, it’s just another blow, making it more difficult to get back on your feet,” Christiansen said.

Nationally, more Americans than ever have broadband in their homes—73 percent according to Pew’s November 2016 survey. And an additional 12 percent own a smartphone and use it as their primary internet connection.

As a result, Christiansen said the kitchen is in the process of simplifying its website, making it “extremely mobile friendly.”

But relying on a smartphone also is a form of digital divide, because filling out a job application, paying bills and writing school papers are difficult on the device.Other times, the digital divide manifests itself as a lack of skills. When the kitchen hosts job fairs, Christiansen has seen recruiters bring a laptop and have applicants fill out a form online, even though they were speaking face-to-face—possibly as a way to screen applicants, he said. Even food prep jobs require workers to read and clear digital kiosks.

It’s a common barrier in searching for employment. In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission said 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies required online applications, even if the position is a stocking job at Target or Walmart.

And to adapt and perform a job in today’s economy, prospective employees require the constant learning that the internet can provide. Today’s world is a place where Christiansen earned an MBA online and a maintenance worker at the kitchen references tutorials on YouTube before attempting a repair.

Chattanooga has made progress. Several years ago, the city began an effort to bridge the digital divide. Thanks to a grant from a local foundation, six schools received funds to become one-to-one schools, an idea that places a device into the hands of every student during the school year.

Today, Sammy Lowdermilk works as program director for Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a program of the city’s Enterprise Center, a public-private partnership that seeks to close the divide on three different fronts, according to Lowdermilk. “One is managing the innovation district here in the city, another being research and development. Basically, we have gigabyte internet. How do we make the most out of it?”

Tech Goes Home primarily carries out the Enterprise Center’s third mission, bridging the digital divide. It does this by teaching classes on basic computer literacy, whether it be a community program for residents 18 and up, a school-centric class taken by a student and parent, or an early childhood track. After the 15-hour program is completed, participants have an opportunity to buy a Chromebook for $50, and Tech Goes Home helps connect them with low-cost internet.

“It’s really about empowerment and showing people what they can do,” Lowdermilk said. “A lot of times, our participants are really afraid to dive right in and we pretty much tell them ‘You’re not going to break anything, you’re not going to break the internet. Get in there, click around, get comfortable using whatever resource you’re on at the time.’”

Lowdermilk said Tech Goes Home is a “train the trainer program,” and it has partnered with 80 organizations such as schools, churches, the city’s libraries and recreation centers to deliver the training. So far, 2,287 people completed the program – a little over 1,500 families – and the program put about 1,500 devices into area homes, Lowdermilk said. Of the people turning to Tech Goes Home for help, 76 percent of the participants are African American or Latino and 72 percent are female.

Because of the follow-up surveys Tech Goes Home conducts, it knows that about 70 percent of its participants go on to use their devices to continue learning – most often office software such as spreadsheets and word processors.

In January, Tech Goes Home Chattanooga plans to pilot an office track that teaches the basics of Microsoft Office because most job listings look for candidates who knew programs like Excel or Word.

But it’s not only working-age adults that need access to the internet. Elaine Harper serves as principal of Red Bank High School, a Title I school north of Chattanooga and within the Hamilton County School District.

Before her school was the recipient of a grant with five other schools to put a device into the hand of every student, to become a one-to-one school, only 30 percent of the homes served by those schools had internet connections at home.

“We think of students, current students, high school students as being digital natives – and in a lot of ways they are – but as far as access to technology beyond a phone, they may not have it without the school,” Harper said. “Whereas a student in a more affluent situation would have, at home, access to different forms of technology.”

Technology, Harper said, has changed the way educators teach. Knowing how to use and manage technology is now part of a modern education, part of the world today. There is less of an emphasis on basic research skills, because the internet makes it easier to look them up.

“It’s not necessary for schools to spend a whole lot of time on that type of learning anymore, so it’s on us to figure out okay, we have all the facts at our fingertips, so what can we do with those? What kind of challenges can we tackle?”

With technology in the classroom, teachers can immerse students in a place with, say, Google Maps. Students can better pursue their interests and education can focus on problem-based learning, potentially with real-world applications, Harper said.

In order to leverage technology in a school like Red Bank High, the school used a grant from a local foundation, the Benwood Foundation, to fund the Hamilton County 1:1 Technology Initiative. The initiative is now in its fifth year and the schools’ current crop of seniors will have spent their whole high school years with devices. Now, across the six schools, 65 percent of families have access to internet at home.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga’s neighboring cities have had a different experience with high-speed internet and bridging the digital divide. Google Fiber has provided its gigabyte internet in Nashville, Atlanta and Huntsville, Alabama.

When it comes into a city, the division of the tech giant that provides internet tries to partner with leaders in the community in order to bridge the digital divide said Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, Google Fiber’s head of community impact strategy.

“A company’s investment goes farther when it builds on some of the assets of the leadership within a city,” Fatehi-Weeks said.

Fatehi-Week never thought she’d work with a tech company. She formerly worked as a lawyer working on the issues of housing and transportation access for communities of color and low-income in Austin, Texas. But within the last five years, the issue of digital equity rose to prominence. “Almost as critical as housing and transit are at this point,” she said.

The “lightbulb moment” came to her when she was partnering with The Housing Authority of the City of Austin and she was told that the agency would be moving to an online-only waiting list for housing—for people that may already be struggling with housing and transportation.

“These barriers, they pile on top of each other and that’s what makes this issue so critical,” Fatehi-Weeks said.

Out of the partnership with Austin’s housing authority, Google developed and launched Gigabit Communities, a program that connects low-income and public housing with high-speed internet for free.

“That really came out of the unique capacity and groups and leadership that was here in Austin and then it was something that has grown and was offered in select other cities if the capacity and partners are there.”

A Tennessee state law mandates that Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) cannot offer its internet below cost, so EPB rolled out NetBridge Student Discount Program, which offers 100mbs of internet for $26.99 for families whose children qualify for the Free and Reduced Meals Program in the local schools.

Spotlight on Poverty reached out to the City of Chattanooga and EPB, but at the time of publication, they have not replied.

Fatehi-Weeks said Google Fiber likes to amplify the work already being done in a community.

In Nashville, Google Fiber connected 380 families to gigabyte internet for free in the Edgehill Apartments. But in Atlanta, it is working on placing refurbished computers in the city’s Centers for Hope.

On Oct. 12, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai announced Grow with Google, an initiative by the company to help Americans master new tech skills, and for small businesses to adapt Google’s tools. In conjunction, it said it would donate $10 million to Goodwill. In his post announcing the initiative, Google’s CEO said “the nature of work is fundamentally changing.” Skills rarely found today will only grow in demand.

But for now, for low income individuals who have yet to connect, Google works on three strategies of bridging the digital divide: Low cost internet, access to the right device and education on how to use the technology.

“We see digital inclusion is best advanced when someone has access to the internet in their own home, when possible, and on a device like a desktop or a laptop,” Fatehi-Weeks said. “That is when you can do the maximum good for your education or employment enrichment.”

Daniel Jackson is a journalist based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He writes for Courthouse News Service and his work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Times and The Chattanooga Pulse.


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