Sprint Corp. plans to give away 1 million smartphones and other connected devices and free wireless service to help high school students, including some in the Kansas City area, who don’t have internet access at home.
The program, called the 1Million Project, will connect 200,000 students per year over five years. Sprint said students would receive limited LTE data service and unlimited slower service as well as free phone and text service during their four high school years.
“This is personal to me,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure.
He’s a founder of the One Laptop Per Child effort to deliver devices to poor children globally. At the helm of Sprint, and more specifically during visits to Kansas City-area schools, Claure encountered digital divides close to home.
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Schools were getting connected, he said, but many students were at a loss for internet access at home. Sprint said there are 5 million students nationwide without internet service at home. Students, Claure said, would go to the library, Starbucks or a hotel lobby to access open Wi-Fi connections. Some would just give up.
At one school, Sprint provided mobile hotspots that students could check out and take home to make internet connections that are important for completing homework.
The 1Million Project, Claure said, takes that idea and makes it “bigger and bolder.” The project will connect not only students at home but also their parents, who will be able to communicate digitally with teachers.
“I compare this to not having electricity, not having water in your home,” Claure said. “Connectivity has become a bare necessity and hopefully we’re going to help bridge the gap.”
In its announcement, Sprint called the effort “the largest corporate initiative to bridge the digital divide and help close the ‘Homework Gap’ for 1 million disadvantaged high school students lacking home internet access.”
Sprint already addresses the digital divide though programs including the White House’s ConnectED and ConnectHome, My Brother’s Keeper and other efforts.
Kansas City also has benefited from other national and local efforts to connect more families and individuals to the internet and help them understand how it can improve their lives.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Sprint, the Polsinelli law firm, J.E. Dunn Construction, Google Fiber, The Illig Family Foundation and Global Prairie backed the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund that helps teach residents how to make use of digital access. Google Fiber provides a $15 a month broadband connection for disadvantaged neighborhoods in the area.
Sprint noted that the 1Million Project is getting support from the Sprint Foundation and through donations from device manufacturers. Devices available through the project are smartphones, tablets, laptops and hotspots.
The 1Million Project will begin in seven to 10 cities, according to Sprint, though the company has identified only Kansas City so far.
High schools and public housing authorities can apply this month to take part in the 1Million Project pilot that begins in January. A full rollout of the project nationally is set for the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
Claure said the 1Million Project was a natural for Sprint, given its ability to connect students without incurring great costs and its partners’ willingness to provide plenty of devices.
“Every company needs a cause, something to rally around,” Claure said. “I think this is a lot better than writing a bunch of checks.”
He’s also mindful that good works boost Sprint’s brand, and that next year’s 1Million Project students will become wireless consumers some day and likely to think of Sprint as their carrier.