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.
Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)/Senior Planet from AARP, led AARP's director of livable communities and a representative from the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, in a discussion about the transition to 5G and the shutdown of 3G.
On demand: Check out a recording of the hourlong seminar on YouTube.
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 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's 3G network started to go dark on Feb. 22, and the company has said its shutdown is on schedule. But it has not elaborated on when the process would be complete.
On March 31, T-Mobile began shutting down the 3G network that had been part of Sprint before the two companies merged.
"As part of our shutdown process, we are migrating customers in some areas over the following 60 days to ensure they are supported and not left without connectivity, and the network will be completely turned off by no later than May 31," a T-Mobile spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. "This is a normal network transition process. We look forward to sunsetting this outdated technology so every customer will have access to the best connectivity and best experience in wireless."
The company's own 3G UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) 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 flavor 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
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.
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“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.
Providers of medical alerts and burglar and fire alarm monitoring services have already experienced the loss of 3G signal in numerous places, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York City, Oklahoma, parts of Texas, Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, according to the alarm industry.
While AT&T — at the urging of the FCC — did craft a partial solution designed to lessen the effects of the 3G stoppage by allowing units that have the capability to roam onto the T-Mobile network until it is shut down July 1, the solution only helps 20 percent to 25 percent of the remaining 2 million alarm and medical systems that still need to be replaced, says Dawit Kahsai, senior legislative representative for AARP.
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 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.
Take on Today podcast for Feb. 24, 2022, including an update on the shutdown of 3G service
Take on Today podcast for Feb. 10, 2022, which focuses on the 3G service shutdown
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.
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.
This story, originally published Oct. 25, 2021, has been updated to include the dates on which companies are turning off their 3G networks and other information.
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 coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.