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Chicago Wants to Make Its Student Broadband Program Permanent

The program, dubbed Chicago Connected, will provide more than 100,000 Chicago Public School students with the Internet at home, and officials say the goal is to make sure those students are never without broadband again.

Chicago River
Chicago River
Chicago officials say they hope a program that was launched recently to get students Internet access at home will be the first phase of a broader effort that ultimately bridges the city’s digital divide.

The program, dubbed Chicago Connected, was announced last month, billed by the city’s press release as “a groundbreaking initiative to provide free Internet.” City officials report that the program — which was a collaborative effort across sectors — will connect 100,000 students, giving them Internet at home for a minimum of four years. The effort comes as the COVID-19 crisis has emphasized the importance of home connectivity, sparking similar programs across the country, from Detroit to San Rafael, Calif.

Essentially, what has happened in the nation’s cities is that the pandemic has made clear the importance of having Internet at home, be it for children doing schoolwork, adults looking for jobs or seniors benefiting from telehealth programs. As a result, cities have found greater interest from community groups, philanthropic organizations and private-sector entities in collaborating on programs that bridge the digital divide.

Chicago Connected is one such example.

To make it happen, the city worked with community groups, the Internet service providers and Chicago Public Schools. They also received millions in donor funding from a list of 10 entities, including philanthropist Ken Griffin, Crown Family Philanthropies and the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, which is paid for through the Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago. Also on the donation list was a $750,000 boost from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. The donors will pay for the first two years of the program, while the school district will fund years three and four.

And it’s that four-year scope that really sets the program apart from those found in other parts of the country, most of which haven’t locked down commitments that span that far into the future. Moreover, city officials in Chicago say this is just the first phase of a long-term plan that will eventually get an Internet connection into the homes of the entire city.

Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett said bridging the digital divide has always been part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s platform for improving equity in the city, and that the advent of COVID-19 accelerated the need, necessitating decisive action.

“This is really just phase one of what we’re trying to do,” Bennett said. “The [Chicago Public School] student need was critical because of COVID, but we know there’s a broader need across the city.”

The city in its role was able to act in part as a convener, facilitating the donations from the disparate actors, working with the ISPs, and bringing in the school district. Community groups were also instrumental in conceptualizing the nature of the group.

Daniel Anello is the CEO of Kids First Chicago, a community group that works to ensure high-quality public schools are accessible to all families. Anello’s group helped facilitate and give shape to Chicago Connected as well. Anello said the expectation is that by the time the first four years of the plan is up, there will be new funding or potentially legislation that will help it continue indefinitely. 

“What the quarantine and coronavirus did was really elevate how significant an issue this has been for a very long time,” Anello said. “We’ve always thought of the Internet as a luxury, and the truth is coronavirus made us realize it’s a necessity.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.