Most every mobile service provider pitch you come across nowadays screams 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 running out the clock on 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 recently 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.
“By switching off the older technology and deploying 4G or 5G on that spectrum, the experience of users will improve because the new technologies are much more efficient in how they use that spectrum,” says Ian Fogg, United Kingdom-based vice president for analysis at the mobile analytics firm Opensignal.
There’s precedent. Back in the day when 4G came along, the carriers sent 2G out to pasture.
Companies set deadlines to shutter 3G
AT&T has announced that its 3G network will go dark by February.
T-Mobile says the 3G network that had been part of Sprint before the two companies merged will go bye-bye 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 will be shuttered by midyear.
Verizon plans to retire its 3G network by the end of 2022 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.
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Some medical, home security devices on 3G
Jettisoning 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.”
As of the end of 2020, about 5 percent of AT&T’s postpaid subscribers were using 3G handheld devices, according to the company. 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 almost certainly 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 and so on. But those 4G phones fell back on older network technology standards for voice calls, Fogg says. Only when VoLTE (Voice over Long Term Evolution) or HD Voice came along did 4G matter for calls, too.
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 history. Certain other devices may be able to handle calls only after a software update to VoLTE or HD Voice.
What you should do next
Reach out to your carrier if you haven’t already received information. But be prepared to shop for a new phone. Carriers may offer discounts and special promotions on replacement devices, including more modern versions of a flip phone. A trade-in may not be required, and if you decide to bail altogether you may not have to pay any early termination fees.
Make sure to check in with your alarm monitoring company, too, as well as any other businesses with products that have been reliant on 3G.
Meanwhile, the FCC has a Lifeline program that aims to make communications services more affordable for low-income customers. The benefit doesn’t cover the cost of a new device but may help on phone and internet services.
Entner says he thinks many older adults like things the way they are, thus their previous resistance to upgrading to a more advanced device. “For them, getting a low-cost or free 5G phone will take care of them for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies