A Massachusetts state court has granted a preliminary injunction Thursday delaying Sprint's plan to shut off a wireless broadband network used by hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly in low-income communities.
A Sprint spokesperson said the company "disagreed with the court's decision" and characterized the legal tangle over the shutdown as a "contract dispute" with nonprofit organizations that provide discounted Internet to educational institutions.
At midnight Thursday, the telecom giant had planned to retire an older network operating on the WiMax system, which has long been superseded by the LTE standard. But a judge ruled in favor of a 90 day delay to the shutdown. A number of schools, libraries, nonprofits and individuals still reliant on the network will now have additional time to migrate to the main network.
Nonprofits Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen, which offer discounted broadband access using the WiMAX network, praised the court's decision.
“Today, the courts preserved a lifeline for the communities and families we serve,” said Katherine Messier, managing director of Mobile Beacon. “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."
Sprint spokeswoman Marci VerBrugge-Rhind said the company "hopes that Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen will take this time to work cooperatively with Sprint to resolve the contract dispute" and said the organizations "have chosen to not transition their customers to LTE."
"Our goal is to ensure that our [educational] partners and our subscribers can use Sprint’s best 4G LTE advanced broadband services as soon as possible," she said.
Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen say they share this goal and dispute that they have chosen not to transition their users. The organizations say Sprint is responsible for the delayed migration, setting up "roadblocks" to a smooth network transition by, for example, saying devices required to access the LTE network are "out of stock" or unavailable. Sprint declined to comment on product inventory.
John Schwartz, the founder and president of Mobile Citizen, said the injunction "compels Sprint to honor its professed commitment to closing the digital divide."
To this, VerBrugge-Rhind said Sprint has been "a leader in providing internet connectivity for many years, including to schools, non-profits and the disadvantaged" through grants and digital access programs. "Sprint’s record of programs to bridge the digital divide proves it cares about ensuring as many customers as possible are connected at all times," she said.
The judge's decision Thursday will not affect Sprint's retail customers, and the company is reviewing the decision.
Cora Lewis is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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