EPB looks to next school year for discounted Internet

Authored By david.morton

One of the Chattanooga region’s most renowned public assets is slated to become available to low-income students at a lower price.

EPB plans to launch its Netbridge student discount program in the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. The subscription service would provide eligible customers a 100-megabit-per-second Internet connection for $27 a month.

The high-speed service will be available to households with public school students on free or reduced meal plans. In Hamilton County, nearly 60 percent of students receive meal subsidies through the federal government.

EPB estimates there are more than 20,000 students who meet the criteria in its service area in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

Mayor Andy Berke first announced the discount program this week during his annual State of the City address.

“To use the Web, of course, you have to have a live connection to it,” he said Monday. “With the world looking at us, we must lead in access to the Internet, making our network affordable for as many people as possible.

“Our low-income families will have a faster connection than Park Avenue millionaires at a fraction of the cost,” he continued. “That’s the mark of a community that solves problems.”

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the discount program will help students further their educations, allow them to do research and provide future opportunities.

“It’s the wave of the future that young people have the opportunity to be introduced to the Internet,” he said. “This gives people an opportunity at a reduced rate to have that access.”

Six years have passed since EPB launched its consumer broadband service on the backbone of what has become 600 square miles of fiber optic cable throughout most of Hamilton County and parts of North Georgia.

The primary purpose of the infrastructure is to improve the performance of the electricity grid. But it has also led to one of the fastest and most resilient Internet connections in the U.S.

In 2010, the company announced it would begin offering Internet speeds of 1-gigabit-per-second-a lightning-fast service that’s now being deployed in other cities.

EPB has become the poster child of municipal broadband and is influencing federal regulations and guidelines for how city-owned providers operate.

But its telecommunications services have not been readily available to residents on tight budgets. The same Internet subscription normally costs $58 a month.

The Tennessee Legislature enacted a law in 1999 preventing EPB and other city-owned providers from setting subscription rates less than the cost of providing services.

The discount plan will have to be approved by the company’s board of directors next month.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to close that digital divide,” EPB spokesman John Pless said. “The bottom-line goal is to ensure students have equal access to high-speed broadband.”

Netbridge joins a handful of other public services aimed at giving citizens better access and training to digital tools.

The Enterprise Center launched a Tech Goes Home initiative in February to train students and senior citizens on digital devices.

A partnership between the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation puts tablets and netbooks in the hands of more students.

Pless said using the school system’s free and reduced meal program to vet households allows the company to meet the goal of reaching students most in need. Families will not be required to subscribe to additional services such as telephone or television programming. Past billing history will also not be a disqualifying factor, he said.

Free and reduced meal plans are regularly used as an economic indicator for a school’s student population.

But even the high systemwide figure tends to bely the depth of poverty in some public schools, particularly inside the city limits. Several schools in Hamilton County had more than 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced meal plans in 2014, Tennessee education data shows.