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/ News / Chicago’s Public, Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders Develop $50 Million Program to Provide Free, High-Speed Internet for Four Years

Chicago’s Public, Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders Develop $50 Million Program to Provide Free, High-Speed Internet for Four Years

Chicago Launches Groundbreaking Initiative to Bridge Digital Divide, Providing Free High-Speed Internet Access to Over 100,000 Cps Students

CHICAGO – Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot today announced the launch of ‘Chicago Connected,’ a groundbreaking program that will provide free high-speed internet service to approximately 100,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students in their households. This first-of-its-kind program will be one of the largest and longest-term efforts in the nation to provide free, high-speed internet over the course of four years to dramatically increase internet accessibility for students and help build a permanent public support system for families in Chicago. 

The City worked with CPS and philanthropist Ken Griffin to initiate a first-of-its-kind, scalable solution to address the digital equity gap.  ‘Chicago Connected’ sustainably tackles the persistent access issue through a public-private investment in broadband, with philanthropic partners bridging the program’s initial costs. ‘Chicago Connected’ is estimated to cost approximately $50 million over the next four years, prioritizing families in need on the city’s South and West Sides.

The first two years of ‘Chicago Connected’ will be majority funded by philanthropic partners, including $7.5 million from Ken Griffin, $5 million from Crown Family Philanthropies, $2.5 million from the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund (through The Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago), $2 million from Illinois Tool Works, $1.5 million from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, $500,000 from The JPB Foundation and $250,000 from the Joyce Foundation. An additional joint commitment of $750,000 from President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust to the Children First Fund (CFF), the independent partnership and philanthropy arm for Chicago Public Schools, will support efforts by community-based organizations (CBOs) on the South Side.

These generous commitments, along with $5 million of CARES Act funding from the City of Chicago, will fund years one and two of the program. CPS will fund the program in years three and four of the initiative.

Providing Reliable High-Speed Internet Access to Students who Need it Most

According to Census data, an estimated 100,000 students lack access to high-speed internet in Chicago, which is defined as 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload by the Federal Communications Commission. ‘Chicago Connected’ will provide high-speed internet for households for four years by directly paying for internet service for families that are most in need, using six priority indicators and data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to identify eligible households for the initiative. Priority indicators include students eligible for free lunch, students identified as having special needs, students experiencing homelessness and students living in communities with the highest hardship based on the UIC hardship index. Further, Chicago Connected will prioritize students who are enrolled in summer school who are also eligible for the program.

‘Chicago Connected’ will begin outreach to families next week with the goal of connecting as many of the 100,000 students as possible prior to the 2020-21 school year.  While Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools remain committed to making every possible effort to get students back in the classroom this fall, what next school year looks like and how many students will be able to return is dependent on the trajectory of the virus and guidance from state and local health officials.

While phase one of ‘Chicago Connected’ will primarily focus on providing wired internet access, Chicago Connected will also extend existing mobile broadband hotspot service for eligible students in temporary living situations (STLS) for up to four years.

Groundbreaking Initiative Made Possible by Generous Support from the Philanthropic Community

‘Chicago Connected’ will provide connectivity by directly paying for a low-cost, high-speed internet service plan for families through Comcast and RCN. In order to help facilitate the payments and various program components, ‘Chicago Connected’ has enlisted United Way to serve as its fiscal agent to help administer the funds and monitor the program. By having United Way pay ISPs directly means that families will not receive a bill.

‘Chicago Connected’ will also enlist the support of various Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to support enrollment in the program, digital literacy and skills development training, and connect families with other critical resources. To support this effort, CFF — which will act as a fiscal agent for the work with CBOs — will launch an RFP process for CBO selection; more information will be available at cps.edu/chicagoconnected.

CPS currently provides hotspots through T-Mobile to many of the district’s Students in Temporary Living Situations without a permanent home address. T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are also helping develop potential solutions in areas where traditional ‘wired’ access is not a viable option. This component of the program will take shape over the coming weeks in parallel with the launch of the wired initiative.  

Critical Partnerships to Support Program Goals

‘Chicago Connected’ will provide connectivity by directly paying for a low-cost, high-speed internet service plan for families through Comcast and RCN. In order to help facilitate the payments and various program components, ‘Chicago Connected’ has enlisted United Way to serve as its fiscal agent to help administer the funds and monitor the program. By having United Way pay ISPs directly means that families will not receive a bill.

‘Chicago Connected’ will also enlist the support of various Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to support enrollment in the program, digital literacy and skills development training, and connect families with other critical resources. To support this effort, CFF — which will act as a fiscal agent for the work with CBOs — will launch an RFP process for CBO selection; more information will be available at cps.edu/chicagoconnected.

CPS currently provides hotspots through T-Mobile to many of the district’s Students in Temporary Living Situations without a permanent home address. T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are also helping develop potential solutions in areas where traditional ‘wired’ access is not a viable option. This component of the program will take shape over the coming weeks in parallel with the launch of the wired initiative.  

Chicago’s Larger Vision for Digital Equity

The first phase of ‘Chicago Connected’ is centered on digital equity and internet connectedness as a way to lay the foundation for success for students by increasing access to online learning, college applications, training and workforce development, and other critical government services.

Expanding access to CPS households who need it the most represents the first phase of a larger effort by the City of Chicago to expand internet access more broadly. The City is evaluating additional ways to improve internet infrastructure investments in communities in need beyond CPS families and is dedicated to further exploring how to broaden ‘Chicago Connected’ to connect more families citywide.

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