Chicago Connected Tackles “Startling Gaps in Internet Connectivity” for City Students

Over the summer, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a new program to bring high-speed Internet service to the alarming number of households who do not have reliable access within the nation’s third-largest school district.

The initiative, referred to as Chicago Connected, aims to provide free high-speed Internet service to approximately 100,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. One of the ground-breaking features of the effort is that it includes funds to enlist the support of a number of Community Based Organizations to assist with enrollment in the program, digital literacy and skills development training.

At the end of September, during a virtual town hall meeting, Mayor Lightfoot said that while CPS was making progress connecting eligible families, they had not yet reached the goal.

“We’re not where we want it to be. And I think part of the difficulty is, even though it’s free, it’s about making sure that families feel safe in signing up,” Lightfoot said. “Currently, we have over 25,000 households that are signed up, and that is the equivalent of almost 38,000 students towards our goal of 60,000 households at 100,000 students.”

How It Works

Using a sponsored service model, Chicago Connected seeks to provide the high-speed connection for up to four years by directly paying for the service for eligible families. The program primarily relies on donations from philanthropic partners, CPS and city funds, with an additional $5 million from the CARES Act to fund the $50 million program. Donations, which includes a $750,000 commitment from former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, will cover the first two years, with CPS paying for the third and fourth years.

Eligibility is determined using a weighting of factors including free and reduced price lunch status, Medicaid qualifications, and a community hardship index, as well as other factors such as whether the household contains diverse learners, English language learners or students in temporary living situations (STLS).

In Chattanooga, Tenn., working in in conjunction with the fiber arm of municipal utility Electric Power Board (EPB), city and Hamilton County Schools officials have brought to together a coalition of public and private partners to provide free Internet access for the next decade to the 17,700 households in the county with school children enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program.

Unlike Chicago, which does not have a robust city-wide Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network in place, the $8.2 million HCS EdConnect initiative in Chattanooga will rely on the fiber arm of the city’s municipal utility company, EPB, first established in 2010. With 105,000 existing subscribers, EFB’s fiber network serves as the backbone for connecting approximately 32,000 students in Hamilton County Schools participating in HCS EdConnect program.

In addition to providing free Internet service with 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical connections, eligible students attending Hamilton County Schools are also being supplied with free routers and installation.

Unequal access to fast, reliable Internet service existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-school learning across the country early last spring. However, with students heading back to school in this fall and needing to connect to virtual classrooms for the foreseeable future, the often-lamented digital divide had shown itself to be more of a chasm in Chicago, particularly for African-American and Latinx/o/a households.

Finding the Unserved

Confronted with anecdotal evidence that many Chicago school parents were unable to access CPS online instruction, Kids First Chicago partnered with the Metropolitan Planning Council to quantify the problem and get a detailed picture of where the gaps existed. The report they released last spring, Digital Equity in Education in the Coronavirus Era, showed that Chicago had a widespread connectivity challenge, calling on city leaders to quickly address the issue.

The report found that 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 lacked access to broadband services across the city, or more than 110,000 kids. Furthermore, it was primarily Black and Latinx/a/o neighborhoods that were experiencing “startling gaps in internet connectivity.” Whereas predominantly white, more affluent neighborhoods, showed rates of connectivity near or above 90%, the report found an astounding lack of connectivity in poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods, including: 

  • Just over 1 in 3 households in the Austin, including 33%, or nearly 8,000 of all residing children.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 households in Humboldt Park, including 33%, or 5,100 of all residing children.
  • Nearly 1 in 2 households in West Englewood, including 46%, or 3,100 of all residing children.

The authors of the report issued five key recommendations:

  • Establish a Community-Led Internet Service Subsidy Program to target Chicago’s most underserved communities.
  • Expand Wi-Fi hot-spot lending programs at schools and through community organizations.
  • Partner with Internet Service Providers (ISP) and the philanthropic community to establish WiFi “SuperSpots” in key communities.
  • Encourage ISPs to expand their low-cost broadband service offers.
  • Pilot promising and innovative ideas to leverage city assets to expand Wi-Fi coverage to communities in need.

The report also noted that by providing “increased Internet access for these communities, some of which have seen disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 cases, [it] would provide a plethora of telehealth and other ancillary benefits, in addition to closing the Digital Divide which contributes to a significant racial equity gap in Chicago’s educational landscape.”

How valuable and well-managed the Chicago Connected initiative is perceived to be may affect how Chicagoans vote on a referenda question city residents will have on their Nov. 3 ballots. One of the three non-binding referenda questions, approved by the City Council in July, will ask Chicago voters: "Should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city's community areas have access to broadband Internet?"