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Chattanooga Group Targets Broadband Gaps With Telehealth Access

A local organization called the Enterprise Center is working with community partners to provide residents in the city's Orchard Knob neighborhood with broadband access for telehealth appointments.

Doctor conducts telehealth appointment on a laptop
In Chattanooga, Tenn., a local organization focused on closing the digital divide, has launched a new pilot program to provide 1,000 free telehealth appointments to residents living in one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

The Enterprise Center, which is behind the program, plans to merge telehealth with broadband by supplying home Internet access and Chromebooks to residents so they can speak with medical professionals.

In this case, Chattanooga’s Orchard Knob neighborhood will be the first to benefit from the program, providing care to residents with health concerns like diabetes, heart health and asthma issues, according to Deb Socia, president and CEO of the Enterprise Center.

“There was already a group of us that were meeting regularly to talk about Orchard Knob,” Socia said, including officials from Parkridge Health System and the community’s neighborhood association.

However, due to a lack of funding, the center was not able to fully implement the program until recently.

“We received a really interesting grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority to help address social determinants of health in a very specific neighborhood,” Socia told Government Technology. “It’s allowed for interventions like telehealth appointments, but we also have things like air quality checks, new HVAC systems and technology.”

The program also provides 15 hours of skill training to help get residents online.

“In this case, the program will include support to understand how to use the technology for a telehealth appointment, and then we help them get home access, whether that is, for example, using [the Affordable Connectivity Program] or through another low-cost plan,” Socia said.

Community members met with project officials yesterday to kick-start the program.

“Our goal is to start with this neighborhood, and hope that we can do a proof of concept and really make some changes so that we can do the same thing elsewhere,” Socia said. “I also think it’s an opportunity to look at how technology and broadband access could potentially improve individuals’ quality of life in terms of health.”

According to Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam Internet, other communities can also bridge broadband gaps through telehealth, though there will likely be challenges to overcome first.

“There is an important role for community-based providers to play in the deployment of broadband and improving access to telehealth,” Larsen said via email. “We have worked with cities to use towers, water tanks, rooftops and other vertical assets to build wireless and use poles or right of way (ROW) to build fiber in rural communities.”

One major challenge centers on navigating around existing providers, who can make ROW harder to access and deploy from, as well as the general challenge of maintaining capital for network deployment. Another challenge is federal broadband funding programs that tend to favor larger providers and fiber network deployments over other forms of connection.

“Federal broadband funding programs will cause broadband expansion to take longer and cost more than if there were no programs,” Larsen said. “The programs favor larger providers and fiber network deployments; this means that many community-based providers and wireless ISPs will be adversely affected by the programs through overbuilding and higher costs of deployment.”

“We are already seeing equipment and supply shortages, much higher prices and a lack of available workforce — much of this is due to anticipation of the big federal programs,” Larsen added.

As a result, he said, providers are waiting to see what happens next with government programs instead of building out.


Digital EquityBroadbandChattanooga
Katya Diaz is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.