Between its smart power grid and city-wide fiber network, Chattanooga, Tennessee is a surprisingly high-tech town. Businesses and universities are well-positioned to benefit from the technology investments being made here, but many community members in this small city are not. Tech Goes Home Chattanooga is a digital inclusion program working to change that. With the help of mobile hotspots and low-cost internet from Mobile Citizen, plus invaluable support from the local power company, the nonprofit has continued to provide residents with the technology and skills they need to learn, connect, and grow through a tumultuous year.
Digital Training for All
Modeled after the award-winning program founded in Boston, Massachusetts more than 20 years ago, the Tech Goes Home Chattanooga program works closely with schools and community organizations throughout Tennessee’s Hamilton County to make sure that all residents, regardless of finances or circumstances, have the opportunity to get the training, tools, and access they need.
Chattanooga’s Tech Goes Home is an initiative of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit hub of digital innovation and incubation. Deb Socia is the President and CEO. She was also the very first Executive Director of Boston’s Tech Goes Home. She brought the program to Hamilton County in 2015 to provide in-person, hands-on technology instruction. After all, how else do you teach children and adults to use technology in their daily lives? As it turns out, the Tech Goes Home team would be forced to figure that out.
A Pandemic and a Tornado
In early 2020, the COVID-19 health crisis took hold and stay-at-home orders went into effect. Face-to-face training was off the table entirely. The Tech Goes Home team knew they’d be taking on a bigger challenge than they’d ever faced before: providing devices and remote training to residents—many of whom didn’t have internet access in their homes. Worse yet, a savage EF-3 tornado swept through town on April 13th displacing residents and damaging or destroying over 150 homes and businesses.
To quickly solve the connectivity problem, Socia turned to her associates at Mobile Citizen for low-cost hotspot devices and high-speed Internet service. Rather than bringing people together for classes, the team’s new goal was to deliver Tech Goes Home training sessions remotely to residents’ kitchen tables, hotel rooms, or makeshift offices. “The pandemic profoundly shifted how everyone worked and learned,” Socia explained, so the team at Tech Goes Home had to dramatically shift the way they worked too.
Mobile Citizen was established by Voqal, a nationally recognized social equity nonprofit, as the first 4G service provider in the U.S. to offer affordable mobile internet with unlimited data plans exclusively to education and nonprofit organizations.
For Tech Goes Home, unlimited data was key. “The beautiful thing about Mobile Citizen is that we could pay one up-front flat dollar amount per participant, for both the hotspot device and the internet service, for the entire year,” said Socia. “Their devices are simple for residents to deploy, affordable, and most importantly, such a relief to the people we share them with.”
The people behind Mobile Citizen, like Socia and her team, believe that cost shouldn’t be a barrier to Internet access. In fact, Mobile Citizen was founded on the premise that high-quality, affordable internet contributes to an engaged public and a more equitable society. In Chattanooga, that is definitely proving to be the case.
A Game-Changer for Chattanooga
Socia and her team have been happily surprised by the flexibility of mobile Internet. “One real benefit is that we can redeploy it wherever it’s needed. But what’s been unbelievably good about it is that it builds relationships.”
Casey Miller, the program’s Community Partnership Specialist, described how Tech Goes Home has helped pastors and faith leaders move their ministries online. “Through training on tools like Facebook live streaming and donation apps, some of them have actually been able to grow their ministries during this time,” she explained, which is important to the many employees and community members who depend on them.
The program has helped train artists and other creatives in the city to use online assets to market, sell, and network from home. It has also helped sustain recovery programs by providing hotspots to counselors and outreach programs so they can support their patients remotely rather than in person.
“Thanks to our well-established community partnerships and the trust we’ve earned over the years, we have been able to rapidly deploy devices and hotspots to keep our community members—students, seniors, small business owners, creatives, outreach organizations, and so on—working, learning and thriving through the pandemic,” said Socia.
Between March and October 2020, the program had already distributed 160 hotspots. Each Mobile Citizen hotspot supports up to 15 devices with high-speed unlimited internet access. Participants in the Tech Goes Home program pay a $50 co-pay for 15 hours of class time and a Google Chromebook which they can keep after completing the course. When the year is up, participants can renew Internet service for only $10 per month if they need it.
Fortunately, the Tech Goes Home team doesn’t have to worry about connectivity for school-age kids. The local power company, EPB, provides Internet service to any student on the school district’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program at no cost to families. That’s 28,500 kids who might have struggled to get online otherwise.
An Equitable Future
“Pandemic or not, our goal has always been to serve Hamilton County residents the best way possible, whether that means leveraging city resources, managing finances, early childhood learning strategies, or digital skill building” explained Mary Smith, Program Coordinator. Tech Goes Home programs bring computers, Internet and training to those without so they can find jobs, do homework, live healthy, and flourish in a digitally connected world. Much like Tech Goes Home, Mobile Citizen also exists to bridge the digital divide. “It’s a beautiful match,” concluded Socia.