T-Mobile pushes rural focus with $25M in small town grants

T-Mobile has made rural America a clear aim, with a push on brand recognition alongside deployments, retail stores and initiatives like its Hometown Grant program.

The carrier this week announced 25 small town winners that are part of its five-year commitment to provide $25 million in grants for community projects, alongside earlier stated plans to hire 7,500 new employees in small towns and rural areas.

Winning projects span a range of community development initiatives, from renovating a town-owned home as a safe home for abused women and their children, revitalizing and creating a full-time performing arts center, creating and enhancing greenspaces like city parks, playgrounds and dog parks, completing a baseball complex, to converting an undeveloped city lot into an outdoor accessible classroom with public Wi-Fi.

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States that had winners include Alabama (Atmore and Wedowee), Arkansas (Clarksville), California (Mammoth Lakes), Illinois (Dixon), Indiana (Batesville), Idaho (Fruitland), Kansas (Fort Scott), Michigan (Lake Orion), Mississippi (Oxford), North Carolina (Laurinburg, Robersonville, and Boiling Springs), New Mexico (Raton), Ohio (Bowling Green), Oregon (Aumsville, Talent, and Toledo), Pennsylvania (Phoneixville, Pittston, and South Fayette Township), Tennessee (Erwin), Texas (Elgin), Utah (Helper City), and Washington (Moses Lake).

The project is in partnership with Main Street America and Smart Growth America. Winners are chosen and awarded on a quarterly basis and towns with populations of less than 50,000 are eligible to apply.

“These incredible projects spark innovation, ingenuity and hard work that have always been the hallmark of our nation’s small towns,” said Jon Freier, EVP of Consumer Group at T-Mobile, in a statement. “From beautifying historic Main Streets to building all-new retail spaces, pop-ups and parks … this is part of our commitment to rural America, and we can’t wait to see all these creative plans come to life.”

Kiosks part of rural push?

And based on recent activity, the focus on rural isn’t just talk.

“We absolutely are seeing T-Mobile make a serious push into rural America,” said Jeff Moore, founder and principal at Wave7 Research, noting it’s led by the company’s SMRA (small town rural America) team.

Moore told Fierce that Wave7 is seeing T-Mobile hiring, promoting ads to come get jobs with the carrier, as well as an initiative with rural kiosks selling devices.

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T-Mobile already said it aims to open more than 200 brick and mortar retail stores in rural America by year’s end. According to a recent Wave7 Research report, T-Mobile recently disclosed plans to have a third-party rural presence by setting up more than 200 kiosks in places like hardware stores or device repair shops in small towns and communities by the end of 2021.

Moore reported that T-Mobile officials at the All Wireless & Prepaid Expo in August confirmed the kiosks would be in addition to the already promised physical retail store locations – meaning a presence at over 400 new rural locations.

Fierce has reached out to T-Mobile but been unable to get independent confirmation from the operator.

As for the jobs commitment, T-Mobile in working to secure its merger with Sprint pledged to create nearly 5,600 new customer care jobs by 2021. By 2024 the combined company would employ 11,000 additional workers than what a standalone Sprint and T-Mobile would. However, there have been some questions as to whether the operator has held up that commitment, with the Wall Street Journal reporting this summer that T-Mobile’s hiring pledge is off to a slow start.

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The kiosks might not be part of the hiring pledge for 7,500 new employees in rural America, Moore noted, as they appear to be using people who are otherwise employed.

“These are people who operate a phone repair store or a hardware store, or something like that,” he told Fierce. “And then they have a kiosk where they’re able to sell T-Mobile phones.”

In terms of economics, Moore said in really small markets (like towns with 5,000 people) T-Mobile might not get payback from physically building a retail brick and mortar store.

“But if you just put a kiosk where you have a knowledgeable representative who is able to activate a T-Mobile smartphone on their network as it expands, that might make a lot more sense,” he added.

In addition, T-Mobile recently expanded its presence at Walmart and added Metro by T-Mobile prepaid distribution across 2,300 locations.  

Speaking this week at an investor conference, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert reinterred the rural focus and said the operator is seeing rapid improvements in brand reputation in smaller markets and rural areas.