The Intersection of People and Technology – #FiberConnect2023

Fiber to the Home is an important milestone in closing the digital divide. Ensuring that the residents utilize this asset effectively is a distinct and equally important challenge. The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, TN is a leader in addressing this issue.

A Background of Innovation

Chattanooga is famous for having the first community-wide fiber optic network. Its industry leadership has continued throughout the years with increasing speeds of a gigabit and, now, symmetrical connections up to 25 gigabits. The city-owned EPB fiber optic utility is at the center of a technology ecosystem. A recent example of that is the establishment of the EPB Quantum Network as “America’s first, industry-led, commercially available quantum network designed for private companies as well as government and university researchers to run quantum products.

Training: The Key to Engagement

It isn’t just about providing fiber; it’s about ensuring residents understand its significance. Deb Socia, President and CEO of The Enterprise Center, emphasizes the necessity of training and showing people the benefits of the network and the associated ecosystem. Training is one part of a larger program that builds community engagement around innovation, digital equity, and smart communities.  

She points out that training is only effective when the trainees trust their trainers. In Chattanooga, they’ve adopted a “train the trainers” approach. This could involve a church member explaining the fiber’s benefits to their congregation or a librarian conducting a similar session. This approach ensures that residents have a familiar face to turn to post-training, fostering a sense of trust.

Digital Equity in Education

The Enterprise Center’s efforts extend into the educational sector. The pandemic highlighted the stark digital divide among students. In response, The Enterprise Center is an integral partner in the 2020 launch of EdConnect. It predates and shares some similarities to the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, as it provides no-cost home internet to some 17,000 students in Hamilton County who are “Students who are on free or reduced lunch or whose families receive SNAP benefits.”

Deb’s experience as an educator for 32 years provides her with insight into the need for such an offering. She saw the unfair distribution of digital resources in schools and that there is a need to level the playing field, as education continues to expand into the virtual world.

Addressing Health Disparities

The city’s commitment to its residents goes beyond education. In one of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, plagued by adverse health outcomes, a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority allowed the introduction of telehealth appointments, new HVAC systems, and indoor-outdoor air quality sensing to the Orchard Knob community. These connected community efforts are aimed at improving the health outcomes of the neighborhood’s residents. Results from this public-private partnership will be closely monitored and reported next year.

Beyond Chattanooga

While Chattanooga remains the focus of The Enterprise Center, Socia indicates that their work spans across the state, focusing primarily on telehealth and digital equity. Clearly, communities across Tennessee and the rest of the United States will benefit from the toolkit The Enterprise Center is developing that will help other communities adopt similar measures.

Interview Highlights

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