At the Last Minute, a Judge Stops Sprint from Shutting Off Internet for 300,000

A last minute reprieve for students, the elderly, and low-income people.

Nov 6 2015, 12:00pm

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

A Massachusetts judge has ordered telecom giant Sprint to halt plans to shut down parts of its aging WiMax network, granting a last-minute reprieve to hundreds of thousands of people in underserved communities around the country who faced the prospect of losing their broadband access.

Massachusetts superior court judge Janet Sanders' decision to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the shutdown is a victory for Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen, two nonprofit groups that have a decade-old agreement with Sprint's Clearwire division to provide low-cost WiMax service for students, the elderly, and low-income people.

Sprint had long been planning on deactivating the aging WiMax network on Friday as it works to transition customers to its newer LTE network. Last month, the nonprofits filed a lawsuit against Sprint arguing that the company's WiMax shutdown—coupled with its plan to throttle LTE traffic at levels far below what institutions like schools need to operate, according to the nonprofits—would effectively yank broadband service for 300,000 people.

"We will comply with the court's decision to delay WiMax decommissioning."

"Today, the courts preserved a lifeline for the communities and families we serve," Katherine Messier, managing director of Mobile Beacon, said in a statement. "We hope Sprint will now work with us to ensure the elderly, disabled, students and other vulnerable populations who rely on our service can transition to LTE quickly and avoid any disruption in service."

Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen currently use Sprint's WiMax network to provide $10 unlimited broadband service to 429 schools, 61 libraries and 1,820 nonprofit organizations across the country, according to the groups. Many of these organizations are working to bridge the "digital divide" by providing low-cost broadband access to people who are often unable to afford service at commercial market rates.

"The injunction compels Sprint to honor its professed commitment to closing the digital divide," John Schwartz, the founder and president of Mobile Citizen, said in a statement. "It's unfortunate it took a court order to stop Sprint from shutting off 300,000 children, families, teachers and community members from access to the American dream."

Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon were created by a group of non profit Educational Broadband Service (EBS) providers, many of which belong to a consortium called Voqal, that use wireless spectrum allocated by the Federal Communications Commission to advance the public interest by providing broadband service to schools and other community institutions like hospitals and nursing homes.

In 2006, the nonprofits leased a chunk of their wireless spectrum to Clearwire. In exchange, Clearwire agreed to provide unlimited, high-speed broadband service to schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations across the country. Sprint bought Clearwire in 2013, and soon thereafter announced plans to shut down the aging WiMax network. The nonprofits accuse Sprint of refusing to honor the terms of their original 30-year deal with Clearwire.

Sprint has characterized the matter as a "contract dispute," and in an emailed statement to Motherboard last month, the telecom giant accused Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen of a "lack of cooperation and good faith effort" in working with the company to transition from WiMax to LTE.

"We disagree with the court's decision today but we do hope that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen will take this time to work cooperatively with Sprint to resolve the contract dispute," a Sprint spokesperson said in an emailed statement after Judge Sanders' ruling. "We will comply with the court's decision to delay WiMax decommissioning where it could affect current Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen customers."

The Sprint spokesperson said the company is "reviewing today's decision and evaluating our options," and added that "we plan to continue to protect our rights in this contract dispute and expect to prevail on the merits."

Judge Sanders apparently does not share Sprint's view, writing in her decision that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen "have demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits."