After purchasing Clearwire three years ago, Sprint is shutting down the WiMAX network that powers Clearwire’s CLEAR internet service so it can focus on LTE, the 4G network that has emerged victorious over WiMAX. Sprint plans to shutter CLEAR on Nov. 6.
If that was too much telecom jargon for you (it was for us, too), keep paying attention because the news means two important things for Philadelphia, including what could be a major blow to efforts to close the digital divide in the city.
1. One less broadband option for an already sparse market.
It’s tough news to CLEAR customers like Rachael Spotts, 27, who lives in Chester with her three-year-old and her partner. Spotts, who recently got her master’s at Widener University, said she chose CLEAR for wireless internet at home because she didn’t feel comfortable signing a contract, the way Comcast and Verizon require you to. She was worried that she would miss a payment and get slapped with late fees. With CLEAR, you pay month to month and if you miss a month, you don’t get the service.
“It felt safer,” she said.
Plus, CLEAR is cheaper in the long run. (Comcast and Verizon start out cheaper but increase their prices after six months.) Spotts paid between $50 and $55 per month for the service.
Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge said she did not have numbers on how many CLEAR customers there were in Philadelphia, though Sprint spokeswoman Adrienne Norton did confirm that in Philadelphia, there aren’t any comparable services to CLEAR (at the same price point, unlimited data and no contract option). When Sprint sent notices about the shutdown, it notified customers about other broadband options in the area. In Spotts’ case, Sprint sent her the number for Comcast’s Xfinity service.
2. Ten thousand low-income Philadelphians could lose access to the internet because of a dispute between Sprint and two nonprofits that provide them access. (The number of those affected is 300,000 nationally, according to the nonprofits.)
It gets a little convoluted here — Ars Technica has a good breakdown of both sides, but basically, the nonprofits — Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon — own parts of that WiMAX network and leased it out to Clearwire (now Sprint) and offered their customers CLEAR internet at a lower rate.
Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon haved sued Sprint, saying that after the WiMAX shutdown, the company will slow their customers’ internet speeds after they use 6GB of data.
“For schools and nonprofits,” said Mobile Citizen spokeswoman Kristen Perry, “this isn’t feasible.”
Sprint spokeswoman Vinge called the issue “a contract dispute” and said that Sprint has successfully transitioned its other partners over to LTE.
“We have been very successful at transitioning the majority of these accounts,” she wrote in an email. “But the transition cannot take place without the cooperation of each licensee.”
Whatever the case may be, what’s certain is that if it doesn’t get straightened out by Nov. 6, customers in Philadelphia will lose access to their home internet.
That includes the 2,300 local customers of JumpWireless, a two-year-old Mobile Citizen reseller who provides internet to those affiliated with nonprofits like Philadelphia FIGHT, which supports those living with HIV/AIDS, and Career Wardrobe, which helps women get into the workforce. They also have customers who are residents of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
“It’s completely devastating,” said JumpWireless spokeswoman Kelly Anzulavich, noting that some of JumpWireless’ customers connect their home internet to their MedAlert emergency response devices.
Unlike Internet Essentials, Comcast’s low-cost internet option, JumpWireless doesn’t require customers to have a school-age child who qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Their service costs around $15/month.
Since JumpWireless is a Mobile Citizen reseller, its hands are tied while Mobile Citizen and Sprint hash it out, Anzulavich said. In the mean time, they’re cobbling together affordable cellphone plans that their customers can use for internet. But that’s not a sustainable solution in the longterm, Anzulavich said.
Another initiative that will be at a loss is Drexel University’s mobile computer labs. Drexel has four carts that are outfitted with about ten laptops each and Mobile Citizen hotspots that they lend out to organizations like the Free Library of Philadelphia and the city’s Office of Mental Health. In 2014-2015, more than 7,500 residents used the carts, according to a letter from Drexel project manager Maria Walker about the importance of Mobile Citizen’s service.
“In order to provide poor people with 21st Century skills and tools to combat poverty, they need fast,
high-quality Internet access that starts when they are in school and is not restricted after 6GB,” Walker wrote in the letter. “In a city that continues to battle high unemployment and poverty, unrestricted access to broadband in Philadelphia is one of the means to overcoming economic inequality.”