At the end of this week, patrons of the Forest Park Public Library will no longer be able to check out mobile “hot spots” that allow them to connect to the Internet anywhere.
The Forest Park Public Library, like many libraries in the nation, are caught in the middle of a dispute between a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that sells cheap wireless broadband access and Sprint Corporation, the company that operates the WiFi network. Sprint will shut down its WiMAX network on Nov. 6 in favor of its newer 4G LTE network.
After the old WiMAX network is shut down, the library’s mobile hot spots will no longer be able to connect to the Internet, so the Forest Park Public Library will no longer lend out any of its 17 hot spots after Oct 31 and all hot spots have to be returned by Oct. 31.
“We were told that, as of early November, they were not going to function,” said Magan Szwarek, the Adult Services manager at the Forest Park Public Library.
In the last few weeks the library has been putting up signage to inform patrons that the hot spots will not be available for check out soon.
The library has been lending out mobile hot spots since May 2014, and they could be checked out for two weeks at a time. They were a popular item, especially with people who did not have Internet access at home.
“The people who use them are really reliant upon them,” Szwarek said. “I think it’s an important collection that we offer and really kind of speaks to the mission of the library, which is to provide information to people, whatever that information may be, whether it’s technology like the Internet at home or a book. They were always all checked out with a hold list until we started winding down the program within the last couple of weeks.”
Szwarek is investigating alternative service providers and hopes to have a deal in place by the end of the year.
“We don’t have an exact date and we don’t have an exact plan, but I’ve been spending the last several months looking into alternatives so that we can bring this service back to the people of Forest Park, hopefully by January of 2016,” Szwarek said. “Obviously whatever we do is not going to be at the greatly discounted rates that we were used to. I am really hopeful that we will be able to bring this back. I’m just not 100 percent sure how we’re going to do it.”
Currently the library is only paying $10 per month per device for unlimited wireless access that the hot spots provide. The devices themselves cost only about $15.
A Rhode Island-based nonprofit called Mobile Beacon provides the service under a contract with a company called Clearwire that has been taken over by Sprint. According to a published report in the Chicago Tribune, Mobile Beacon claims that Sprint has made it difficult for Mobile Beacon’s customers to migrate to Sprints 4G LTE network and that Sprint wants to drastically slow down access speeds after a hot spot has used six gigabytes of data a month.
However, a spokeswoman for Sprint describes the problem as a contract dispute and says that Mobile Beacon is to blame for any disruption of service.
“It’s a contract dispute,” said Stephanie Vinge-Walsh, a public relations manager for Sprint. “They don’t like the contract. For about a year and a half we have been working with Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon to try and ensure that they could transition their customers to the new LTE network. But rather than negotiate a resolution to this contract dispute with us, they’ve chosen to not transition their customers and as a result they’re intentionally risking their customers getting disconnected.”
Mobile Beacon, like other nonprofits, holds an Educational Broadband Service (EBS) license and made a deal with Clearwire to lease spectrum space.
Mobile Beacon and its sister organization, Mobile Citizen, sued Sprint in Massachusetts state court earlier this month. Plaintiffs include the Chicago Instructional Technology Foundation and other organizations that hold an EBS. The organizations say they provide unlimited broadband service to a combined 429 schools, 61 libraries and 1,820 nonprofits in the United States, according to the Tribune story.
“We have attempted to work with them,” Vinge-Walsh said. “We have made offers, we have tried to talk with them, we have tried to work with them, we have approached them many times to try to resolve this matter. Like the vast majority of the other EBS licensees Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon could have transitioned their accounts any time over the past year and a half, but rather than resolve this contract dispute, they have chosen not to.”
Vinge-Walsh declined to say what terms Sprint has offered Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen or whether the libraries hot spots would still provide unlimited access to the Internet under any new deal.
“There is a contract dispute about a variety of those things, and I can’t get into it because we are being sued by them so there are things I can’t say,” Vinge-Walsh said.