There’s no question that connected devices have transformed education. Sixty-three percent of K-12 teachers in the United States report that they use connected devices in the classroom daily, and even more have their students rely on the internet for research. By 2026, some three-quarters of U.S. teachers expect textbooks will be completely replaced by digital resources.

Technology is rapidly reshaping the way American students learn, think, and succeed. But the gains have not been equal. Nearly a third of low-income households — and 41% of low-income African American households — in the U.S. have no basic broadband internet connection (25 Mbps up/3 Mbps down). And in rural areas of the country, as many as 39% of households still lack high-speed internet access.

For students in underserved households, the digital divide isn’t an abstraction — it’s a homework gap that they face every day. One FCC study reported an estimated 70% of U.S. teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband, and yet, according to the Pew Research Center, some 17% of U.S. teens are unable to complete homework due to lack of connectivity.

“There is a part of the population that has been left out of the digital revolution,” says Mike Katz, Executive Vice President, T-Mobile for Business. “If you’re a student trying to do basic schoolwork, like studying or reading a book, everything is online. Without sufficient connectivity, these students can’t complete homework, let alone apply for jobs or complete college applications in an efficient way. It’s imperative that we do everything we can to prevent students and their families from being left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

To help narrow this digital divide, T-Mobile for Business launched EmpowerED 2.0, inspired by ConnectED — a public-private initiative started by the Obama administration in 2013, which aimed to give 99% of American students access to next-generation broadband by 2018. While ConnectED provided fixed connections to students’ homes and equipped schools with broadband, computers, and mobile devices, EmpowerED 2.0 provides mobile connectivity directly to students.

“We looked at the ConnectED initiative and asked what we could do differently,” says David Bezzant, Senior Director – Public Sector, T-Mobile for Business. The buildout of fixed connections in schools under ConnectED, says Bezzant, meant that “the odds were schools had better WiFi than most businesses.” It’s when students left school that a different gap started to emerge.

“The internet essentials programs that were out there mostly provided students with in-home, reduced-speed connectivity that was fixed, so the second that you moved, you lost access,” says Bezzant. Furthering the challenge, many schools didn’t allow students to bring laptops or mobile devices home, thus limiting their usefulness for homework and widening the homework gap when students left school.

EmpowerED 2.0 looks to radically expand students’ home access by enabling students to bring both devices and high-speed hotspots home with them. This is key to addressing the homework gap.

T-Mobile for Business works with districts that are identified via the federal Title I program in order to zero in on students with the greatest need. EmpowerED 2.0 allows schools in these districts to select the hardware they need and provides a subsidy of up to $200 per student. This covers the cost of a 4G/LTE advanced mobile hotspot plus the netbook, Chromebook, tablet, or phone that best suits the school’s curriculum, along with a $20/month unlimited data plan – and, in some cases, additional discounted or free service is provided to schools based on need. T-Mobile doesn’t dictate any particular device or configuration, letting the school be in charge of creating a program that best fits the needs of their students.

“"It’s imperative that we do everything we can to prevent students and their families from being left on the wrong side of the digital divide.””

Mike Katz T-Mobile for Business

Providing connectivity via a mobile hotspot also provides far more flexibility than plans that rely on fixed connections. Since the hotspots support the new 600Mhz and 700Mhz network bands, they can take advantage of the highest-speed 4G LTE service currently available, as well as the 1.2 million square miles of rural coverage T-Mobile has added over the past four years — better connecting isolated schools outside urban areas. And as Bezzant points out, it will be simple for districts to upgrade to 5G in the future without requiring students to transition to a new phone, tablet, netbook, or Chromebook — only the hotspot will need to be replaced.

And as T-Mobile continues to build out 5G infrastructure, the program will take advantage of the promise next-generation networks hold for education.

“There’s a lot of promise there,” says Katz. “The way in which 5G impacts the education space has yet to be fully defined.” For EmpowerED 2.0, Katz sees upcoming AR and VR innovations as having the potential of being particularly impactful, giving students in rural districts access to otherwise unavailable experiences, from science lab visits to Broadway shows. Katz also sees similar potential in a low-latency network’s ability to provide real-time translation, bridging language barriers in distance learning for K-12, college, and job training programs.

Ultimately, however, EmpowerED 2.0 is about giving schools and students the tools they need to move forward. “This is not just a story about internet connectivity,” says Bezzant. “It’s about every single student mattering and reaching his or her potential.”

Created by CNBC Brand Studio for T-Mobile for Business.

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