Telecommunications giant Sprint unveiled plans this week to bring devices and wireless connectivity to 1 million impoverished high school students, in what it describes as an ambitious campaign to close the “homework gap.”
Students participating in the program will receive either a free smartphone, tablet, laptop, or “hotspot” device that offers them access to the web.
The offer, announced by Sprint and its foundation, also includes 3 gigabytes per month of high-speed LTE data, and then unlimited data at 2 GB speed after that. Students who get a smartphone can also use it as a hotspot, and for unlimited calls and texts in the United States, while on a Sprint network.
Sprint is billing the efforts as the “largest corporate initiative in U.S. history to bridge the digital divide.”
The company’s effort comes as policymakers at the federal level and school advocates are calling for greater focus on addressing the so-called homework gap. That term refers to students lacking internet connectivity away from school, which leaves them unable to complete assignments online that their peers from more privileged backgrounds routinely complete without a hitch.
The Pew Research Center has estimated that 5 million U.S. families with children in school do not have home broadband access.
Sprint says it will partner with nonprofits My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and EveryoneOn to recruit community organizations, including schools, libraries, and public housing authorities, to the program.
Initially the program will be piloted in January in seven to 10 markets, with the goal of giving Sprint and its partners a better sense of specific student needs, and what’s necessary for a nationwide rollout.
Device manufacturers who work with Sprint will support the program, the telecommunications provider said. The company and its foundation also say they will raise money through special events, and donation of devices, and other activities.
The contributions from device makers will help hold the costs of the program down for Sprint, as will its reliance on existing Sprint infrastructure, business networks, and strategies, said Jim Spillane, the company’s director of public sector strategy and ConnectED programs, in an interview.
“We’ve already built the highway,” he said. “There’s really not much new cost to adding new cars to the highway.”
Sprint has been participating in ConnectEd, a White House effort launched a few years ago that has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars of commitments from corporations to give schools and students greater access to ed-tech and connectivity. One of the big takeaways from that effort was that even when the company offered free wireless access to schools, K-12 systems still faced barriers in taking on the costs associated with giving students what they need.
Specifically, as part of the program, schools were asked to buy hotspot devices, but many struggled with that cost—which generally ranged from about $160-$300 per unit, recalled Spillane.
That setback helped convince Sprint officials of the need to focus on addressing students’ needs for both devices, and connectivity, he said.
“It needs to be a holistic solution,” Spillane said. “We need to provide the devices for free, and the service for free.” Sprint’s leadership wanted to marshal its resources behind “one cause that really made sense for us a company,” he added.
Some critics of the ConnectED effort have questioned the value of companies’ investments, and their impact, when compared to the positive marketing and publicity those businesses take in.
Asked if the new effort will help Sprint build its name among a new generation of customers, Spillane said that “clearly there’s a benefit to the Sprint brand,” through the program. But he also said the company’s ability to succeed financially and maintain a “healthy organization” will ultimately allow it to “continue to help more students” as it focuses on building connectivity, and equal access to ed-tech.