Updated Nov. 6, 2015 with Sprint’s statement.
A Massachusetts state court has granted a preliminary injunction to stop a planned shutdown of Sprint Corporation’s WiMax broadband network, giving providers of low-cost internet access to libraries and other organizations 90 days to migrate users to Sprint’s LTE network.
Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon, which provide unlimited broadband access for $10 per month to 61 libraries, 429 schools, and 1,820 nonprofits, requested the emergency relief order after negotiations stalled between Sprint and the nonprofits in October over the terms of the transfer to the new network.
Sprint was scheduled to discontinue the service on November 6, which would have ended access for an estimated 300,000 users, according to a Mobile Citizen/Mobile Beacon news release.
“Today, the courts preserved a lifeline for the communities and families we serve,” Katherine Messier, founder and managing director of Mobile Beacon, said in the release. “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.”
A Sprint spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment. (Updated Nov. 6, 2015. A Sprint spokesperson provided the following statement: “We disagree with the court’s decision today. We hope that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen will take this time to work cooperatively with Sprint to resolve the contract dispute. … We remain committed to an equitable solution for all parties and are hopeful that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen will work with Sprint in good faith to get their customers transitioned so that they can remain connected. We plan to continue to protect our rights in this contract dispute and expect to prevail on the merits. We are reviewing the decision and evaluating our options.”)
The two nonprofits are designated Educational Broadband Service providers by the Federal Communications Commission and given a portion of the broadband spectrum to offer access to various nonprofit and educational entities. Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon sold access to telecommunications company Clearwire in 2006 for a 30-year commitment to low-cost internet access.
Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon allege that Sprint, which bought Clearwire in 2013, isn’t fulfilling the terms of the contract. In addition to requesting the injunction, the nonprofit organizations are suing Sprint over plans by the telecommunications company to limit broadband for devices that access the network through Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon.
Messier tells American Libraries that the lawsuit filed October 14 aims to prevent Sprint from “throttling” the data used by each device—now unlimited—to six gigabytes per month. She says devices use 30–40 gigabytes per month on average and up to as much as 300 gigabytes.
The data cap doesn’t meet the level of service specified in the contract or the level of need, Messier says. Mobile hotspot lending and adult education are but two ways libraries use the inexpensive broadband program.
“The programs we do with these libraries are focusing on people who don’t have other options,” she says.
Ed Garcia, director of Cranston (R.I.) Public Library and American Library Association councilor-at-large, says his library lends mobile hotspots as part of its English as a second language program. Garcia says he worries that if the data cap is left in place, there would not be enough capacity for users.
“If we have to spend the money for the normal data plan for consumers, it would price us out of using these,” he says.
John Schwartz, the founder and president of Mobile Citizen, said in the news release that his group is “looking forward to moving ahead positively with Sprint and ensuring that everyone in our community can keep the service they rely on to connect to the larger world around them.”
“The injunction compels Sprint to honor its professed commitment to closing the digital divide,” Schwartz said. “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.”