Sprint said it would donate one million connected devices and free mobile accounts to underprivileged kids as part of an effort to address the digital divide.
School age children living in some five million low income households lack a way to connect to the Internet at home, handicapping their ability to do homework and research topics for school.
Sprint said it would work with EveryoneOn and the My Brother's Keeper Alliance to identify recipients and distribute the free devices. High school students may receive smartphones, tablets, laptops, or Wi-Fi hotspots, depending on need, according to the carrier. Each device will come with a free account with three gigabytes of data per month.
Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure, who is on the board of directors of My Brother's Keeper Alliance, said he has partnered with manufacturers to give out devices, which combined with the wireless service would be worth $2.2 billion at retail prices. The expense to Sprint would be much less, as adding new users on its network has little direct cost. The company will also ask its customers to donate used devices to the program.
"We're doing this because we want to help the students but we also believe that this initiative is going to help our country," Claure said on a call with reporters on Tuesday. "I'm a strong believer that businesses have a responsibility for doing their part to solve society's most pressing problems. That's exactly what we're doing with the one million project."
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President Barack Obama was slated to discuss the Sprint initiative and other related efforts at a town hall in Greensboro, N.C. later on Tuesday. Obama started the My Brother's Keeper program in 2014 to eliminate barriers that were holding back disadvantaged young people from getting a good education and employment. It has so far raised $600 million in grants and donations, with programs running in almost 250 communities, the White House cited.
The new Sprint (s) program will begin late this year or early next year with pilot programs in seven to 10 cities. A nationwide rollout is expected to begin in time for the 2017-2018 school year, with a goal of distributing the one million devices within five years.
Claure, who grew up in Bolivia, says he'd like to move even faster after the pilots are completed. "Once we know exactly what works, we're going to go full force," he tells Fortune. Five years is the maximum but "my goal is to go way, way faster."
The harm to kids of lacking an Internet connection at home has grown dramatically over the past decade as schools have increasingly turned to online software and materials. "You tend to think this is only happening in countries like Bolivia where I grew up," Claure says. "Then you see its happening right in our backyard."
(Update: This story was corrected at 11:35 a.m. October 11 to clarify that the retail value of $2.2 billion included both devices and wireless service.)