Updated: Sprint plans to shut down WiMAX network tomorrow, says only a small percentage remain on network

Sprint (NYSE: S) plans to shutter tomorrow the mobile WiMAX network it inherited when it bought Clearwire in 2013, and the carrier said only a small percentage of customers remain on the WiMAX network after a long campaign by Sprint to get customers to switch to its LTE network.

Also unresolved is a lawsuit two nonprofit groups that have been providing mobile WiMAX Internet service to low-income students and families brought against Sprint for allegedly violating the terms of their contracts with the carrier.

More than a year ago, in October 2014, Sprint publicly disclosed that it would be shutting down the WiMAX network on or around Nov. 6, 2015. Sprint spokeswoman Adrienne Norton told FierceWireless the company is "currently still on track to cease operating" the WiMAX network as of tomorrow.  

Sprint did not provide a precise number of customers still on the WiMAX network but indicated it is small. "A majority of customers have transitioned and a small percent remain on WiMAX," Norton said. "Also, virtually all remaining Sprint postpaid and prepaid subscribers are on dual-mode devices and will still have access to our 3G network. Approximately 5 percent of remaining subscribers are associated with the [Educational Broadband Service] licensees." 

The two nonprofit groups, Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen, are EBS license holders. They alleged in a lawsuit they filed last month that they had been offering unlimited WiMAX service to more than 300,000 customers, and with Sprint's shutdown of the WiMAX network, they are being pushed to accept LTE data service that will throttle the speeds of customers after they hit a cap of 6 GB of data, in violation of their contract with Sprint. According to the lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, they claim they serve 429 schools, 61 libraries and 1,820 nonprofits who are dependent on the WiMAX service for Internet access.

Last week Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen filed an emergency injunction request with the court, asking it to stop Sprint from shutting down the network.  

At the heart of the dispute is the changing nature of the service Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen will get from Sprint. The lawsuit alleges that its agreements with Clearwire and then with Sprint mean that Sprint needs to provide them with "the best level of service it provides its retail customers," and that Sprint is failing to offer that.

Sprint and the groups faced off in a court hearing on Tuesday, but it does not appear that there has been any resolution as of yet. "As of this morning we are still waiting for a ruling," Kristen Perry, a spokeswoman for Voqal, the parent organization of Mobile Citizen, told FierceWireless.

Sprint said it has nothing new to report about the dispute with Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen. "We appreciated the opportunity to present our position on this contract dispute at Tuesday's hearing and will await the judge's decision," the company said in a statement.

Norton said that Sprint has "extensively notified customers of the impending shutdown and encouraged migration from WiMAX to LTE to avoid service disruptions. Notifications to some impacted parties began more than two years ago and outreach to customers continued to significantly increase in the six months leading up to the shutdown. Notifications have included direct mail letters, email messages, SMS messages, phone calls, and on-screen notifications which appear when a customer tries to access the Internet."

Additionally, Norton noted that Clear-branded Clearwire customers began receiving notifications in April and "reminders were sent out throughout the past few months, including a 90-60-30-15 and there will be a 1 day prior reminder. We sent these notifications via email, and we sent a courtesy reminder via a web page on-screen notification. For Clear customers with VoIP service, we also sent an email and a physical letter in September to the email address on file and the physical e-911 address provided for the account."

Norton noted that for WiMAX customers who want to move to LTE, Sprint does offer a wide range of mobile broadband devices and service plans. For example, for Clear-branded customers, the Netgear Fuse Mobile Hotspot for just $9.99 plus tax (normally it's $49.99). Boost Mobile offers several plans, with some solely for former Clear wireless customers. The plans are $25 per month for 1.5 GB of data, $50 for 10 GB, $55 for 15 GB and $100 for 30 GB, with the $55 and $100 plans for former Clear customers only. Sprint also offers a variety of postpaid data plans, including $70 per month for 15 GB and $100 per month for 30 GB, plans that are only available to former Clear customers.

In 2013 when SoftBank was working to win control of Sprint, it reportedly pledged to remove network gear from Huawei that Clearwire used in its network, a step that, according to a Wall Street Journal article from May 2013, had a price tag of up to $1 billion. The report, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, said the U.S. government wanted Sprint to remove the Chinese network vendor's equipment from Clearwire's network.

"Regarding equipment, Huawei equipment will be destroyed," Norton said. "Other equipment will either be recycled or reused (microwave radios, for instance, can be reused). The non-Huawei sites that are not being kept as part of Sprint's network plan will have equipment removed in phases as lease terms expire or are terminated."

As part of its network densification efforts, Sprint plans to add thousands of macro cell sites and tens of thousands of small cells, as well as make nearly all of this cell sites tri-band, with support for 800 MHz, 1900 MHZ and 2.5 GHz LTE. Clearwire's WiMAX network runs on the 2.5 GHz band. Norton said in terms of refarming Clearwire's spectrum, "we're able to re-purpose it for LTE right away, as soon as the WiMAX shutdown is complete in a market." 

Related articles:
Nonprofits using WiMAX sue Sprint, alleging violation of contracts ahead of network shutdown
Sprint to shutter WiMAX network around Nov. 6, 2015
Sprint to shutter WiMAX network by end of 2015, will turn off at least 6,000 towers
Sprint changes terms of service to give WiMAX customers more flexibility to switch to LTE

Article updated Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time with additional information from Sprint.