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Last 3G Mobile Phone Network Shuts Down: What It Means For You

Verizon was the final wireless provider to shutter the service

pile of smartphones

RayArt Graphics / Alamy Stock Photo

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Verizon discontinued its 3G network at the end of 2022, becoming the last of the major carriers to shutter the now obsolete service. Both AT&T and T-Mobile completed their own 3G shutdowns in the first half of last year. 

The carriers had been working for more than two years with millions of customers, many of them older adults, to replace their devices with ones that will work on the 5G network, shorthand for the fifth generation of wireless. Companies' 5G service is still rolling out across the country.

By now, customers who ignored the call to change will have lost cellphone service entirely, including the ability to call 911. Most of the 3G-capable phones folks had been using on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon networks aren’t able to tap into the latest networks though some remain compatible on existing 4G LTE networks. Customers who upgraded likely are facing bigger monthly bills in exchange for the new service.


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Some companies, such as T-Mobile, offered their customers a free 5G replacement device. Customers may be seeing the free device incentive in the form of bill credits over several months, an installment charge for the price of the phone and a corresponding credit that encourages them to stay with a carrier at least until the phone charge and credit stop.

Companies shut off 3G to repurpose the finite amount of spectrum, or the airwaves they’re allotted to send wireless signals to networks. You were not out of the woods if you got phone service from the likes of Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk and other discount providers. They piggyback on the major carriers’ 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.

Back when 4G came along, carriers put 2G out to pasture — well, most of them. T-Mobile says it still has remnants of its old 2G network in place that it will take down at an undetermined date. In 3G’s heyday, the phones could have a wider service area by falling back on a 2G network wherever coverage was spotty.

Shutoff dates were an end, not a beginning, FCC says

AT&T started taking its 3G towers offline in February of last year. T-Mobile began shuttering both its own network and the Sprint network it inherited when the carriers merged in 2020.

T-Mobile’s 3G UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) network shut down July 1. T-Mobile shuttered the former Sprint’s LTE network, which stands for Long-Term Evolution and is a flavor of 4G, at the same time.

Verizon retired its 3G network after extending an original 2020 deadline.

At the end of March, Verizon said less than 1 percent of its customers were still accessing its 3G network. In early July, telecom analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics in Dedham, Massachusetts, estimated that would be a few hundred thousand customers at each carrier, totaling fewer than 1 million people and down from 5 million to 10 million late in 2021.

Some medical, home security devices on 3G

Jettisoning 3G doesn’t affect just phones. Certain home security systems, in-car SOS services, Kindle readers, medical devices, smartwatches, tablets and other devices have also been dependent on 3G.

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee, a group composed of representatives from home security and personal emergency response system companies, was especially concerned about the shutdown of AT&T’s 3G network because most of its devices use that carrier. Their devices are installed in homes to report break-ins, fires and medical emergencies and include emergency button and pendant services that help older adults stay in their homes.

The problem for the industry came in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. Replacing base stations that transmit information to a monitoring service or emergency responders often meant a home visit to change out equipment. Computer chip shortages also affected availability of new devices.

“We’re talking about life-saving devices,” Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)/Senior Planet from AARP, told WUSA-TV, Washington. “We’re not talking about somebody’s stereo speakers switching out on them while they’re listening to a Beatles record.”

A similar device, such as a Kindle or tablet that operated on a 3G cell network, can hook up to Wi-Fi if it finds no wireless signal. But most 3G security equipment couldn't use that option and needed to be replaced.

Is your phone affected?

If you have a device from 2012 or before, your phone’s call-making ability is almost certainly kaput by now though some other features may continue to work. Not just flip phones and feature phones are affected. Some early smartphones may also be affected, 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 post 3G. 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. You can check the device settings to determine which version of a handset you have. Of course, if your phone can no longer make or receive calls, you have your answer.

Just because you own a smartphone with the 4G label, doesn't guarantee it will handle calls either. Early on, the 4G designation referred to data-only network services, such as photo sharing, social media, internet browsing 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 now that 3G is history. Certain other devices may be able to handle calls only after a software update to VoLTE or HD Voice.


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


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.

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 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 shutdown of all the 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.

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