Is T-Mobile's Free Internet Enough for Low-Income Families?

The provider's $10 billion giveaway is a band-aid on a shameful US problem

Key Takeaways

  • T-Mobile will give away free 5G internet connections to 10 million homes, distributed by school districts, for five years.
  • Less than a third of African American and Latinx households have broadband.
  • Lack of competition means that US internet prices are double those in much of Europe.
Children Participate in E-Learning Activity at Home
Laura Olivas / Getty Images

T-Mobile plans to give free internet to 10 million homes in the US. Called Project 10Million, the idea is to get kids from low-income families online so they can keep learning during lockdown. 

Eligible households will get a free hotspot for five years, and 100 GB data per year. T-Mobile’s CEO actually announced this scheme last November, long before COVID-19 shutdowns. There’s still a massive digital divide in the US, and the pandemic is only making the inequality more obvious. For kids and workers, internet access is almost as essential as electricity.

“Based on our summer school with refugee and asylum-seeking youth, we know that it’s a combination of an adequate computer and connectivity that’s needed,” Janet Gunter, co-founder of The Restart Project, told Lifewire via email. “And many lower-income households still only have mobiles.”

Digital Divide

It’s 2020, and in the US, broadband internet isn’t distributed anywhere near equally. One kind of digital divide is the rural/urban divide, where over a quarter of rural residents still lack a wired broadband connection, according to these 2017 figures from the FCC. The other kind is the one where non-white households in cities don’t have internet access, even though the cables are laid.

“One in three African Americans and Hispanics—14 million and 17 million, respectively—still don't have access to computer technology in their homes,” writes education columnist Jabari Simama for Governing.com. “Similar dismal numbers, 35 percent of Black households and 29 percent of Hispanic households, do not have broadband.”

According to an Associated Press census analysis, “Students without internet at home are more likely to be students of color, from low-income families or in households with lower parental education levels.” 18 percent of all US students don’t have home broadband.

This is bad at the best of times. Even if kids have a school-supplied computer, they still can’t access basic requirements like online class materials. And while there are many ways to get online for free or cheap, they aren’t ideal.

The Solution?

T-Mobile’s Project 10Million will be administered by schools. School districts can distribute the 5G hotspots to those that need them. And while 100 GB per year doesn’t sound like much, it’s likely enough to get schoolwork done. The five-year duration is also essential. One scheme in Hartford, Connecticut gave hotspots to high school kids, but when the program ended, half of all district households were left without access.

T-Mobile's Project 10Million promo image
T-Mobile

Kids are getting around these kinds of issues by using their phones. They can either share their phone’s data connection to a laptop—known as “tethering”—or they just do homework on a phone. Tethering is a fast track to “maxing out their data plans,” says The Restart Project’s Gunter, and while using a phone for schoolwork is possible, it’s impractical. We know kids can type just fine on phone screens, but those small screens mean they have to flip back and forth between source material and writing.

The Indian Fix

In 2016, India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani launched a brand-new LTE network called Jio. Ambani spent $32 billion (US) to build the data-only network from scratch, and it covered the entire country. He then made voice calls free, and set data plans cheaper than all other providers. This meant that virtually everyone could afford the internet, and it crushed the digital divide. Jio is now the largest mobile operator in India.

T-Mobile’s 10-million-home scheme is tiny in comparison, and while it will be great for those who are eligible, it won’t solve the basic problem. In the US, where private corporations are often relied upon to do jobs that are handled by the government in other countries, it seems unlikely that anything will change. Ambani’s ambitious plan in India worked because he saw a way to provide full internet access to millions of Indians. He disrupted the existing market.

In the US, it would take a new entrant like Jio to radically change things. The problem isn’t availability, but a lack of competition and government regulation.

“While broadband in the United States is widely available and uptake is high,” says a UK study of worldwide broadband prices, “lack of competition in the marketplace means Americans pay far more than they should, compared to much of the rest of the world.”

While basic broadband access remains too expensive for low-income families to afford, this digital divide will remain, and kids won’t have access to the education resources they need. That’s bad enough at any time, but in the middle of a pandemic, when distance learning is the norm, it means kids can’t get any education at all.