Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Last year, T-Mobile announced a plan to provide 10 million low-income households free broadband internet to close what then-CEO John Legere called “the homework gap,” pitching it as one of the reasons that the company should be allowed to merge with Sprint. The company has now revealed that it has allocated $10.7 billion for that “Project 10Million” program over the next decade, with the goal of making it available to K-12 students who participate in the national school lunch program for low-income families.
“Even before the pandemic, more than 9 million of America’s 56 million school-age kids did not have access to reliable internet, and could not complete after-school assignments,” the company said in a news release, suggesting that existing gap leaves many kids at risk of falling behind in school.
With so many students learning remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the need for home internet may be even more important than it was last year.
School administrators can apply for the program by providing ZIP codes for their students in the school lunch program, and parents can also volunteer their schools. The schools then distribute the hotspots and devices, with T-Mobile providing assistance for setup and technical support. Households can get a free hotspot and 100GB of data over a single year, or they can pay $12 monthly for 100GB of data each month.
Those data limits may not meet all the needs of students using Zoom, YouTube, and loads of other video-streaming platforms for their online classes and entertainment, and T-Mobile is still limiting those video streams to a low-resolution 480p. There’ll be a limited number of hotspots available, too, with T-Mobile allocating more each year.
In addition, the fine print says that the free plan will end after 100GB or 365 days, whichever comes first, suggesting that students’ internet may get abruptly shut off. (That’s different than a typical “unlimited” cellular plan, where you have some low level of internet access even after you hit a data cap.)
Still, this is definitely better than having kids sit outside fast food restaurants to access Wi-Fi hotspots just so they can do their homework.