T-Mobile expands promise to connect students for free amid COVID-19

T-Mobile has expanded a program that helps schools provide home Internet connections for all students, part of a package of benefits the company promised to persuade regulators to approve its $26 billion merger with Sprint.

Under the program, known as Project 10Million, T-Mobile is offering free wireless connections and Wi-Fi hotspots to up to 10 million students who lack Internet connectivity at home. The carrier is also offering laptops and tablets at cost, or in some cases free, through partnerships with hardware makers like Apple.

With even more need for connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced millions of students to learn completely online, T-Mobile expanded the amount of free or discounted data available to each school district to 100 GB monthly or more, up from an earlier limit of 100 GB annually.

The program had to broaden from a focus just on closing the so-called homework gap now that so many schools are completely online, T-Mobile executive vice president Mike Katz, who helps run the program, tells Fortune.

“As we got into COVID, a lot of the relationships we’d built with schools [gave us] immediate feedback when the shutdowns happened about helping them solve a different problem,” Katz says. “It was no longer just homework, connectivity before and after school, but facilitating school all day, especially for kids that have no broadband access at home.”

Even before the pandemic, some studies have found that more than 10 million U.S. students lacked access to broadband Internet connections at home, making it difficult for them to complete homework assignments. That sparked the original T-Mobile Project 10Million. The pandemic has made the situation even more critical, as schools closed and students had to go online to access classes. In a poignant image that went viral on Instagram last week highlighting the problem, two small girls sat outside a Taco Bell in Salinas, Calif., to use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi for school. A GoFundMe campaign raised over $100,000 for their family, but the problem is widespread.

T-Mobile’s program works with school districts; students and their parents can’t apply directly. During the pandemic, T-Mobile has already connected 1.6 million students online in 3,100 school districts. The carrier values the potential give aways at more than $10 billion over the next five years.

The connectivity program follows the opening of two other major merger-related initiatives that T-Mobile and Sprint had promised in order to persuade regulators to approve their merger, which closed in April. Earlier this year, T-Mobile kicked off a free wireless service for first responders and began offering a low-cost consumer plan, called T-Mobile Connect, for just $15 a month.

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