Sprint's 1Million Project: philanthropy or smart marketing?

Sprint will lend smartphones, tablets, and laptops to low-income high school students – in addition to giving them four years of connectivity.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
High school students at Dearborn Stem Academy, a Boston public school, take an intro to programming computer science class, on Oct. 28, 2015 in Dorchester, Mass.

One million high school students across the United States who lack internet access will receive a tablet, laptop, or smartphone on loan from Sprint to help them complete homework assignments, the network announced on Tuesday. The devices will serve as part of a pilot program Sprint has created to help close the gap on internet inequality.

The network, along with the Sprint Foundation, has dubbed the initiative the “1Million Project,” and plans to provide students with devices and internet access so that they can keep up with their classmates as education moves to the online sphere. While many Americans have unlimited internet access across a variety of devices, 20 percent of people still don’t have a mobile data plan or broadband internet in their homes. The lack of connectivity stems from either the services’ cost or limited access in rural areas, and has made completing homework, seeking vital public information, or applying for jobs increasingly difficult for an already disadvantaged group of Americans.

“The internet is one of the few things that doesn’t discriminate, but the one thing that does discriminate is who can get online and who can’t,” Marcelo Claure, Sprint’s chief executive, told The New York Times.

The program has tapped nonprofits to recruit students for its nine-year venture and will provide those selected with 3 gigabytes of high-speed data a month for the four years they’re enrolled in high school. That’s enough to browse the internet for 60 hours. If students go past that allotted data, they’ll still have access to slower service.

Sprint plans to kickstart the program in seven to 10 cities at the beginning of 2017, and hopes to expand the service to additional students in the following school year.

“The private sector has as much responsibility as the public sector to make devices and broadband available to millions of young Americans,” Broderick Johnson, President Obama’s cabinet secretary and the White House task force chairman who helped Sprint develop the program, told the Times.

While some have heralded the program as a philanthropic effort, others note that the program won’t place a large economic burden on the company, and is likely to boost their rapport among users while also allowing the company to market itself.

Sprint will donate devices, but won’t see additional costs to adding users to its network. The project doesn’t require any additional upgrades, the company said, and adding more users to its existing network is much like putting more cars on an already paved highway.

The company will also reap benefits from its new users in return. Community groups or schools who wish to participate will have to take part in local events, distribute promotional materials, and supply feedback and study testimonials to the company. It’s also likely that the company can turn some of those 1 million students into Sprint customers after introducing them to the service.

“People will look at Sprint as a good guy,” Mr. Claure told the Times. “Brands that create social value by making a meaningful difference in people’s lives are in a stronger position to attract new customers.”

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