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Last 3G Mobile Phone Network Will Shut Down by End of Year

Verizon is the only wireless provider whose service is still up and running

pile of smartphones

RayArt Graphics / Alamy Stock Photo

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After AT&T and T-Mobile completed shutdowns of their 3G wireless networks in the first six months of this year, Verizon remained as the only provider of the nearly obsolete service.

Verizon will discontinue its 3G network at the end of 2022. The carriers say they have been working for the past 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), which is rolling out across the country.

Customers who ignore the call to change will lose cellphone service entirely, including the ability to call 911, when their company ends 3G. Most 3G phones on AT&T and T-Mobile networks aren’t able to use Verizon’s service. Customers who upgrade likely will face bigger monthly bills in exchange for the new service.

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Some companies, such as T-Mobile, say they have offered their customers a free 5G replacement device. Sometimes customers see 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 you to stay with a carrier at least until the phone charge and credit stop.

Companies are shutting off 3G to repurpose the finite amount of spectrum, or the airwaves they’re allotted to send wireless signals to networks. 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 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 are an end, not a beginning, FCC says

Both AT&T, which started taking its 3G towers offline Feb. 22, and T-Mobile, which began shuttering both its own network and the Sprint network it inherited when the carriers merged in 2020, say those 3G networks are “retired.” You may find a stray signal, but it won’t be reliable.

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

Verizon is in the midst of retiring its 3G network after extending an original 2020 deadline. The moves will be finished by Dec. 31, the Federal Communications Commission says. 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.

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 last year.

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 has come in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. Replacing base stations that transmit information to a monitoring service or emergency responders often means a home visit to change out equipment. Computer chip shortages also have 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 operates on a 3G cell network, can hook up to Wi-Fi if it finds no wireless signal. But most 3G security equipment can’t use that option and needs to be replaced.

Is your phone affected?

If you have a device from 2012 or before, your phone’s call-making ability is on borrowed time, though some other features may continue to work. Not just flip phones and feature phones are affected. Some early smartphones may also be impacted, 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.

Just 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 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 once 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, 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 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 several 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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