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T-Mobile's Project 10Million, launching Thursday, aims to end the homework gap

The company commits $10.7 billion to make sure students can access the internet at home. It'll provide free hotspots and a limited amount of data -- or a discount for more data.

Thirteen of the country's 15 biggest school districts will have virtual classes this fall, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps people at home. But millions of students lack the devices and connectivity needed for remote classes. 
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As schools start around the US, many face a problem with getting all their students connected for virtual classes. To help with that crisis, T-Mobile on Thursday launched its grant program that aims to eliminate the so-called homework gap.

Unveiled a year ago, Project 10Million will provide hotspots and free connectivity for millions of students around the country. Now that T-Mobile and Sprint have merged, the combined company has hammered out the project's specifics and is opening it up to schools on Thursday. It has allocated $10.7 billion over the life of the 10-year program, up from the initial $10 billion pledge in late 2019.

"Our mission is to not stop until we've provided the connectivity and devices for students to be connected who can't afford to be connected, so that they can do their homework," T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Matt Staneff said in an interview ahead of the news. "We believe we can make a difference, and we're taking this on at scale." 

Students who are part of the national free- and reduced-price lunch program for low-income families will qualify for Project 10Million. A school district applies for the grant and is able to specify the needs of its students. It doesn't share personal, identifying data with T-Mobile, aside from a ZIP code at times to be sure students have steady T-Mobile service where they live. The schools handle the distribution of the hotspots and can tap into dedicated T-Mobile support for setting up the device or other troubleshooting.

Once the approval goes through, which T-Mobile says could happen within hours, the schools will have the option to give each student a free hotspot and 100GB of data spread out across a full year (that equates to slightly over 8GB per month), or they can apply the grant money -- $500 per student per year -- to access discounted T-Mobile data plans. In that case, a school would still get free hotspots for each student if needed but would then pay $12 a month for 100GB of monthly data or $15 a month for unlimited data. T-Mobile also gives schools access to at-cost tablets and laptops.

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the US, schools across the country are figuring out how to hold classes this fall. Some are offering in-person sessions, but others, like the districts that cover 97% of the 6.2 million students in California, are opting for remote learning. Thirteen of the 15 biggest US school districts will be fully remote this fall, with their students attending virtual Zoom sessions or completing their Google Classroom homework online. 

This shift online has shined a light on a long-standing problem that's only gotten more severe in the age of the coronavirus: the homework gap. The country has wrestled with a digital divide for decades, with people lacking the ability to get online. But the pandemic has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations: Students from poorer urban areas and remote rural districts. The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the US Education Department, estimates that more than 9 million kids don't have the connectivity needed for virtual school, while another study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League and UnidosUS puts the tally at 16.9 million.

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Bridging the schoolwork gap

Nearly half a year after the pandemic first shut down schools, many still don't know how to make sure all students can attend virtual classes. For some, their students live in places, like Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands, where broadband connections are nonexistent. But for others, lack of connectivity is an affordability problem. The families simply can't afford home internet broadband access. It's those kids that T-Mobile's program will best address. 

"These kids that were afflicted with the homework gap prior to COVID, their problem became a different problem, which is what we call the schoolwork gap," Mike Katz, the head of T-Mobile's education business, said in an interview ahead of the news. "It wasn't just about connectivity before and after school and correspondence with their teacher via email ... Now it's literally, if you don't have connectivity, you can't do school." 

The Project 10Million grant of $500 per student can be combined with other T-Mobile programs, like its partnership with New York Public Schools or with the state of California, which lets schools buy discounted Apple iPads and T-Mobile service for students. And schools can switch between the different data plans. If a district is fully remote in the fall, it could pay for the unlimited plan but then shift to the 100GB-per-year plan when students return to physical classrooms. 

Each student who's approved is part of the program for five years, and for the basic plan, the 100GB data cap resets each year. If a student enrolls in the fifth year of Project 10Million's existence, the program could stretch out to 10 years. Sprint's similar 1Million program, which has ended now that the two companies have merged, gave students free data and hotspots for the entirety of their time in high school. T-Mobile's Project 10Million is open to students at all grade levels.

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Device shortages

A side effect of the pandemic has been a device shortage. When the coronavirus exploded in China, it didn't just kick off the proliferation of the disease. It also caused a shutdown in the production of electronics, which we're still feeling the effects of. 

The result was supply being unable to meet the demand sparked by the lockdown, from high-definition webcams to computer monitors. For Chromebooks, hotspots and other devices for education, shipping delays have been severe.

T-Mobile saw big hotspot shortages earlier this year but thinks it currently has enough devices to meet immediate demand. If not, it'll work with schools to allocate low-price phones that act as hotspots, Katz said. 

"We do have hotspots, at this point hundreds of thousands of them a month, but they're constrained," he said. "The good news is we have found other solutions."

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Even before T-Mobile and Sprint merged in April, they had programs that got nearly half a million students connected. Since March, when the pandemic first forced much of the US into lockdown, T-Mobile has connected over 1.6 million students in more than 3,100 school districts across the country, including through the New York and California partnerships.

T-Mobile alone can't solve the homework gap. The company's service has expanded dramatically over the years, but there are still patches of the US without coverage. In rural Iowa, for instance, T-Mobile's service isn't steady or fast enough for remote school. T-Mobile expects to cover more families across the US as it continues expanding its network, including its 5G reach. 

Verizon and AT&T also have provided discounted or even free service for families, but their programs aren't as large as T-Mobile's new Project 10Million. 

"The last thing we want is to deploy service to a kid if it's not going to work," Katz said. "We really hope this inspires our competitors to do something similar so there are more options out there. We don't think there's anything more important than creating equity in education for everyone."