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Doing Something About Digital Inclusion

Among the non-medical issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, few are more stark than that of digital inclusion for students. When schools switched abruptly and en masse to a virtual learning model, millions of students were left without access to education. Libraries, community centers and others scrambled to bridge the divide. Despite these efforts, rigorous studies suggest that approximately 20 years of improvements in test scores and other measures of educational progress were wiped out during the pandemic. Entering the current school year, students were still, on average, more than one-third of a school year behind.

While the pandemic has helped focus attention on the issue of digital inclusion, about one in five households are still without internet access, including more than 4 million households citing cost as their primary reason for remaining offline. Compared to those who are online, these households are more likely to identify as racial and ethnic minorities, and compared to those who aren’t interested in being online, these households are much more likely to have school-age children at home. At the same time, a 2022 survey found that only 27% of teachers said all their students have access to the home internet services they need, with 51% saying at least three quarters of their students had such access, and 21% reporting that less than three quarters did. The bottom line? Despite a 20-40% reduction in the internet access gap for K-12 students since the pandemic, between 9 and 12 million still lack adequate home internet access to support remote learning, according to Common Sense Media.

Government programs have been launched to address the gap, including the Digital Equity Inclusion Roundtable, President Biden’s Internet for All initiative, and a host of local efforts. But government agencies don’t build networks or deliver service. The problem remains too large for policy alone to solve.

Enter efforts like T-Mobile’s Project 10Million. Launched in 2020, the $10.7 billion initiative “provides free internet service and free mobile hotspots to under-connected households with school-aged children, aiming to reach up to 10 million eligible households over five years.” By the end of 2021, the company reported that it had already connected 3.2 million such households. The program offers direct enrollment to qualifying families, partners with schools to provide free access, and offers free and subsidized plans to school districts for distribution to families.

If $10.7 billion sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. In 2021, total corporate giving in the US was reportedly just over $21 billion. Even spread over 5 years, T-Mobile’s stated commitment represents an impressive share of that total. While much of it likely comes in the form of gifted network access with little additional overhead, T-Mobile is clearly committed to providing hardware and support alongside its free and subsidized mobile connectivity. National Digital Inclusion Alliance affiliate Mobile Citizen, for instance, partners with T-Mobile to deliver extremely low-cost internet to schools, libraries, non-profits, and social welfare agencies; the company is cited by the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology; national networks like WeAreTeachers publicize the program; and a simple internet search reveals the ways dozens of schools and districts are taking advantage of it.

While competitors such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast back the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, and in some cases offer their own low-cost offerings, none appears to be undertaking anything with the breadth and scale of T-Mobile’s effort. In January, the company also became “the first in U.S. wireless to set a science-based net-zero target validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) using their Net-Zero Standard.” The SBTi approval came on the heels of the company achieving its prior science-based target four years early, by reducing its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions 97% from a 2016 baseline, and reducing Scope 3 emissions by 16%. T-Mobile also reports using 100% renewable electricity in its operations as of 2021.

If T-Mobile’s track record of climate progress can translate to its digital inclusion efforts, the results could change the game for low-income students. Ten million is not far from the unofficial estimates of how many student households still lack sufficient home internet access to keep up in school. And as we have discussed previously, corporate philanthropy that aligns with other company goals—in this case, helping the customers of the future position themselves for better educational achievement and economic well-being—tends to have staying power. For all these reasons, we look forward to upcoming reports on the initiative’s progress, with the hope it can translate to renewed advancement for underserved students across the country.