Every mobile service provider pitch you come across nowadays touts 5G, shorthand for the fifth generation of wireless rolling out across the country.
While you can’t blame the carriers for wanting to usher in the next era in wireless, millions of people, including many older adults, still rely on phones and other devices that tap into 3G, the third-generation networks that debuted in 2002. The 4G networks that came after have been around more than a decade.
The carriers are finally shutting off 3G, forcing consumers with older devices to act before they lose cellphone service entirely, including the ability to call 911. It’s why the Federal Communications Commission put out an advisory alerting people that the end of 3G is drawing near. Network providers are shutting off 3G to repurpose the finite amount of spectrum, or the airwaves they’re allotted to send wireless signals to networks.
“While the 3G sunsetting is overall a good thing, we are concerned about the potential negative impacts on West Virginia residents, especially those in rural areas where 3G provides critical coverage,” said Gaylene Miller, State Director of AARP West Virginia. “To reduce the risks to those affected, many of whom are older adults, any disruption resulting from the transition to 5G can and should be prevented.”
Companies set deadlines to shutter 3G
AT&T announced that its 3G network will go dark on Feb. 22, 2022.
T-Mobile says the 3G network that had been part of Sprint before the two companies merged will be gone on March 31, and its own 3G UMTS network will be shut down July 1. T-Mobile also indicated that the former Sprint’s LTE network — which stands for Long-Term Evolution and is a type of 4G — will be shuttered July 1.
Verizon plans to retire its 3G network Dec. 31 after extending an original 2020 deadline. The company says it will not extend the deadline again.
“As we move closer to the shutoff date, customers still accessing the 3G network may experience a degradation or complete loss of service, and our service centers will only be able to offer extremely limited troubleshooting help on these older devices,” Verizon vice president Mike Haberman said in a blog.
You’re not out of the woods if you get phone service from the likes of Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk and other discount providers. They piggyback off the major carrier networks.
Some medical, home security devices on 3G
Getting rid of 3G doesn’t affect just phones. Certain medical devices, tablets, smartwatches, in-car SOS services, Kindle readers, home security products and other devices also are dependent on 3G.
In August, citing COVID-19, AARP filed “comments” before the FCC in support of an Alarm Industry Communications Committee petition to have AT&T delay its 3G shutdown until the end of 2022, since members have alarm monitoring and emergency response systems that use 3G.
“Any interruption of these services places individuals and families at risk, and AARP believes that disruptions in any telecommunications service due to technology transition are unacceptable,” the comments read. “If AT&T were to voluntarily extend the retirement date for its 3G services until December 31, 2022, and also continue to maintain reliable 3G facilities until that retirement date, it appears to AARP that the risks facing consumers will be mitigated.”
AT&T's response to the FCC last year indicated that any delay in turning off its 3G service would hinder its expansion of 5G mobile network coverage, and the FCC has not acted to stop the company. As of the end of 2020, about 5 percent of AT&T’s postpaid subscribers were using 3G handheld devices, according to AT&T.
Verizon says less than 1 percent of its customers are still accessing its 3G network. Telecom analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics in Dedham, Massachusetts, estimates 5 million to 10 million people in the U.S. still use 3G phones.
Is your phone affected?
If you have a device from 2012 or before, using your phone to make calls is on borrowed time though some other features may continue to work. Not just the flip phones and feature phones are affected. Some early smartphones may also be included, and you can’t always tell by the name marketers use.
For example, AT&T points out that a Samsung Galaxy S20 G981U or G981U1 will work on its network after 3G is shut off. But Galaxy S20 models G981F, G981N and G9810 will not work.
AT&T published a lengthy list of models it says will continue to work after 3G is phased out. You can check the device settings to determine which version of a handset you have.
Because you own a smartphone with the 4G label, don't assume that it will work. Early on, the 4G designation referred to data-only network services, such as sharing photos, social media, browsing the internet – not for voice calls.
If you still have an iPhone 5, introduced in 2012, 2013’s Samsung Galaxy S4 or prior models, they won’t be able to make or receive regular calls once 3G is gone.
What you should do next
West Virginia residents can contact their mobile providers directly and ask about their plans for 3G retirement. Carriers may offer discounts and special promotions on replacement devices and trade-ins may not be required. West Virginians should also check with their home security and vehicle SOS system providers to discuss the transition. West Virginians with a Personal Emergency Response System (PERS), commonly called a Medical-Alert, Life-Alert, or Fall Monitor, should contact the device manufacturer. Devices made before 2019 commonly operate on 3G networks and the need for upgrades to those devices should be evaluated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the FCC has two programs that aim to make communications services more affordable for low-income customers: the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), an expanded and permanent version of 2021's Emergency Broadband Benefit, and its Lifeline program, originally established in 1985. The benefits don’t cover the cost of a new cellphone but may help on phone and internet services.
For instance, Lifeline offers up to a $9.25 discount off monthly phone or internet bills to households that make less than 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines, and the ACP subsidy for high-speed internet access is $30 a month for households with incomes up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines not located on tribal lands. An eligible household could combine those benefits for internet access or have Lifeline-subsidized cellphone service and ACP-subsidized home internet, the FCC says.
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