As telecom companies rev up the newest generation of mobile service, called 5G, they’re shutting down old networks — a costly, years-in-the-works process that’s now prompting calls for a delay because many products out there still rely on the old standard, 3G.
AT& T is scheduled to be the first carrier to shut down its 3G network on Feb. 22. T-Mobile will shut down its 3G network by summer and Verizon in December.
The home-alarm industry has asked the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. regulator, to delay AT& T’s network sunset until December. The FCC is monitoring the 3G phaseout and working to “implement safeguards” for older phones and other devices, spokesperson Paloma Perez said late Monday.
Verizon already has pushed back its shutdown — twice — from an original target date in 2019, saying customers needed more time to update their devices. T-Mobile also has delayed the shutdown of the Sprint 3G network it acquired in 2020 to the end of March; it’ll shut down the T-Mobile 3G network by July 1.
Why is 3G shutting down?
First, some history. AT& T’s 3G network launched in the U.S. in 2004; later that decade it was the exclusive carrier for early iPhones, helping usher in the first phase of the smartphone era. The networks we currently rely on for video streaming, social apps, Uber and other must-haves of the modern era mostly use the subsequent 4G standard.
For the carriers, shutting down 3G is an efficiency move. As they upgrade to the latest technology, they shut off outdated networks and use the freed-up bandwidth for newer — and what they hope will be more profitable — services.
What if I have an old phone?
People with older phones that aren’t compatible with 4G will have to upgrade; once 3G shuts down, those phones won’t work for calls or texting. AT& T said it has reached out to offer its customers free replacements via letters, emails and texts. Spokesperson Jim Greer said fewer than 1% of AT& T’s consumer devices, including phones, tablets and watches, will lose cellular service, but declined to say how many devices that is. The company reported about 196 million phones and connected devices using its network in the most recent quarter.
What about other devices?
Industry groups also have raised concerns about other products that will need to be replaced or updated — everything from home fire alarms to ankle bracelets used by law enforcement. It’s not certain how many outdated products are out there, or how big a deal it would be if updates take place after Feb. 22.
The alarm industry and other companies say they have had issues replacing devices even though they’ve known about the coming shutdown for years.
How much is outdated?
It’s not really clear. An alarm-industry lobbying group estimates that 1.5 million customers still need to upgrade their fire or burglar alarms, while about half a million have medical alert devices that run on 3G; it said most rely on AT& T service. While an unnetworked fire alarm will still sound an alarm if there’s smoke, it won’t be able to contact the fire department. Likewise, burglar alarms won’t route to emergency responders if triggered. Not all providers say there’s an issue. ADT said in November that it was on track to update its AT&
T customers by February; a spokesperson declined to offer an update Sunday.
AARP, the advocacy group for adults over 50, also is concerned that users of medical alert systems — like Life Alert — that connect users to emergency call centers won’t know their gadgets don’t work anymore or won’t be able to replace them in time.
How should I prepare?
Check your phone to make sure it will still work. Call the companies that make or service your burglar and fire alarms and personal medical alert systems to see if any need an update. If so, schedule a service visit immediately or get a new device shipped.
Source: Tali Arbel, The Associated Press (Article); Mark Lennihan, The Associated Press (Photo)