Sprint dispute could result in loss of affordable Internet for low income people

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Sprint plans on shutting down an outdated cellular network next week. But two nonprofits are fighting Sprint in court, saying that the shutdown will cut off Internet access to low-income individuals, the elderly, and the disabled.

The nonprofits, Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen, use Sprint's old "WiMAX" network to provide high speed wireless Internet to schools and other organizations that help the needy. Sprint's WiMAX rates are so low that the two groups charge as little as $10 per month for unlimited access. But Sprint plans to decommission WiMAX on November 6.

WiMAX technology was developed by a company called Clearwire, which sold cheap Internet access via mobile hotspots. The network has been rendered obsolete by 4G-LTE.

Sprint bought Clearwire in 2013 and has planned to shut down the WiMAX network for more than a year.

Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen claim that more than 300,000 under-served people will lose their only access point to the Internet as a result of the WiMAX shutdown. So they filed for an emergency ruling in a Massachusetts state court on Monday to delay those plans.

"We're trying to get more time, and trying to get the key things fixed that kept us from [being able] to transition our customers," John Schwartz told CNNMoney. He's the founder and president of Mobile Citizen.

Specifically, the groups want Sprint to operate WiMAX for an additional three months. They say that will give them enough time to move their customers over to Sprint's LTE network.

"We want to keep WiMAX running for 90 more days to protect the interests of these vulnerable people," Mobile Beacon's managing director Katherine Messier told CNNMoney. "We're not trying to handicap Sprint forever."

If the shutdown goes as planned, people who can afford an alternative will switch to one, Messier said. But for others who can't afford it, or travel to obtain a new option, they'll lose Internet access completely.

"I don't know any other alternative to unlimited data for $10 a month," she said. Seniors and disabled adults have told her that the change will put them back "in the dark ages."

Sprint argues that the two groups have had plenty of time for the transition, and that they are negotiating how much the groups would have to pay for service after November 6.

Unlimited mobile broadband plans are basically unheard of now. Sprint still offers a $10-a-month mobile hotspot plan, but that only gives customers 100 MB of downloads.

"Sprint gave notice to [them] in the summer of 2014 regarding the November 2015 decommissioning date -- well over a year ago," spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh told CNNMoney in an email.

Walsh also noted that "the vast majority" of Clearwire customers in the education sector have already transitioned to LTE.

"Sprint has gone to great lengths to work with all WiMAX users to transition WiMAX accounts to LTE, for the express purpose of improving the consumer broadband experience, not shutting it off," Walsh said.

A decision on when WiMAX will shut down is expected next Tuesday. The request is part of a larger lawsuit filed earlier this month.

Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen is also suing Sprint (S) for throttling devices' speeds after 6 GB of usage, and for making it difficult to buy Sprint's newer LTE-compatible devices.

"Win or lose, we're gonna fight this out," said Mobile Citizen's John Schwartz.

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