There is a long-term solution to the broadband affordability gap that can be found in America’s first gig city. Thanks to Chattanooga’s wildly successful municipal broadband network, EPB Fiber, and its partnership with The Enterprise Center and Hamilton County Schools, over 15,000 low-income students in 8,500 households in Hamilton County are already getting a decade of free high-speed Internet service at no cost through a program known as HCS EdConnect.
It was borne out of the community’s response to the pandemic as local leaders looked to leverage an existing community asset to allow students to participate in distance learning, enable educators to expand educational opportunities outside the classroom, and support parents in pursuing their own professional and personal goals.
It’s an example of the one of the many benefits of having a locally-controlled, publicly-owned broadband network in which the infrastructure is seen as a public good like roads or a water system. It’s an approach that sees broadband infrastructure as something that should be accessible to everyone in the community and not used as a tool to simply benefit those who can afford it.
We wanted to visually document the power that HCS EdConnect has had in transforming the lives of program participants by weaving together a compilation of video diaries that will give you a glimpse of how a visionary municipal network made this Tennessee county more resilient in the face of the pandemic and ensured no one in their community was left on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Big Telecom Band-Aid or Local Long-Term Solution?
The short video below, produced and edited by our multimedia specialist Henry Holtgeerts, stands in stark contrast to the Presidential press conference held earlier this week at the White House. The event brought the Big Telecom monopolies to the nation’s capital to celebrate that the Biden Administration had “secured private sector commitments that will lower high-speed Internet costs for millions of American families,” thanks to those companies’ participation in Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) – an FCC benefit program created by the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The IIJA allocated $14.2 billion for the ACP program, which allows eligible low income households to receive up to $30 per month ($75 per month on Tribal lands) to help pay for an Internet service plan.
Conspicuously missing from the self-congratulatory press event was any context about how U.S. households pay among the highest prices for broadband anywhere in the world largely because these companies have monopoly control of regional markets with little to no incentive to upgrade their networks or offer better service and prices. There was also no discussion of the remarkable profits that these monopolies have extracted as they cash checks from Uncle Sam in the midst of share buy-back campaigns.
The ACP is certainly a useful program for millions of Americans but not only is it a multi-billion-dollar giveaway to the Big Telecom monopolies, it is merely a Band-Aid solution, especially considering that the program could run out of money in coming years, leaving participants at the mercy of Congress to re-appropriate funds.
While we applaud the Biden administration’s efforts to move toward digital equity, we are also keenly aware that if simply discounting the cost of service from cable and telephone providers were sufficient, we wouldn’t have such a yawning digital divide now, 11 years after Comcast launched Internet Essentials.
We should also not overlook the fact that, while the Biden administration touts these companies’ willingness to take billions in federal subsidies, they are also in the midst of a massive lobbying and marketing campaign to prevent local governments from accessing federal funds in the building of competitive municipal networks.
There are federal Band-Aids and then there’s local long-term solutions that can be provided by smart local strategies, including municipal broadband networks. Here’s a shining example: