Better call your grandparents’ flip phones now, because they may soon stop ringing.
Support for 3G, the 20-year-old wireless network standard, is ending in the US next year, when the major wireless carriers are planning to phase out service. That means many Trac phones, older Kindles, early iPads, and classic Chromebooks—any device operating on 3G—simply won’t be able to connect to cellular data networks anymore. The Wi-Fi radios on those devices will still work, but their mobile data capabilities are going kaput.
This so-called 3G sunset will come to pass at different times for different wireless providers. AT&T says it’s shutting down 3G services in February 2022. T-Mobile recently announced it would extend services to March 31 of next year, but not beyond. Verizon plans to pull the plug in December 2022. Carriers are shutting down 3G service in order to make way for the newer pieces of infrastructure that power the speedier 4G LTE and 5G networks currently expanding across the country.
Money is a major motivating factor behind the switch. LTE and 5G networks are just more logistically efficient to operate; get more users on one standard and there are essentially fewer moving parts to futz with. But there are also practical problems with continuing to service 3G customers. The connections operate on different signal frequencies. AT&T, for example, plans to reuse the spectrum that 3G currently runs on to fully enable its 5G capabilities. Without those wavelengths, the 5G signal simply won’t be as speedy. In order for the wireless future to flourish, providers say, 3G has to die.
“There’s really no backward compatibility when we look at LTE compared to 3G,” says Will Townsend, principal analyst of networking infrastructure at Moor Insights & Strategy. “That’s just because the standard was written 20 to 25 years ago. Unfortunately, when you go through some technology transitions, you don’t have backward compatibility. It’s just the nature of the way those standards and the architecture provide.”
Chances are this won’t mean much for you and your phone. Providers like AT&T and Verizon have long been pushing customers toward devices that run on 4G LTE and 5G. If you’ve bought a phone in the past decade, it likely has at least 4G connectivity. (Verizon hasn’t even activated new phones with 3G for years.) In a perfect world, Townsend says, the transition is a good thing. The grand ambitions of the switch to 5G will mean faster speeds, better architecture, and improved security.
In reality, the 5G rollout has been anything but smooth. The process had a slow start, and even now the speediest connections aren’t being distributed evenly. A quibble over 5G standards has exacerbated international tensions. Even once they’re established, 5G networks aren’t perfect. They have security risks of their own. The signal has the potential to interfere with existing equipment, like the instruments used in airplanes. This month, the FAA issued a report outlining how some of the spectrums used in 5G connections could potentially mess with the altimeters used in aerial navigation.
For the majority of phone users, the transition will seem like more of a whimper than a bang. But there are 3G stragglers who will be left in the dark when the switch flips, many of them elderly or low income. And the devices they rely on include more than just phones.
Many devices within the internet of things—home alarm systems, wearable medical equipment, fire alarms, even ankle monitors—still operate on 3G networks. And 3G devices are used in industries from aviation to trucking.
Nevertheless, the hands of the clock must keep turning.
“With any technology progression, there are always going to be resistors, and you can try to mitigate it,” says Jason Leigh, a research manager at the analyst firm IDC. “But at a certain point, you do have to pull the Band-Aid off.”
But that rippage has stung some industries more than others. Groups representing home security system and medical monitoring device companies have expressed their displeasure, petitioning the FCC to force AT&T to delay its transition until the end of 2022. One group, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, has even gone so far as to call the move downright murderous.
“The requested relief is necessary to avoid the harmful, even deadly, impact this sunset would have on tens of millions of people in millions of homes, businesses, and government installations due to a loss of central station alarm protection service,” the AICC wrote in its petition to the FCC. “Lives will very likely be lost (including many elderly lives) if connectivity is lost.”
Hyperbolic, maybe. But either way, AT&T doesn’t seem to be phased. In response to resistance against the sunset, the company has written that further delaying things would “throw a monkey wrench into AT&T’s carefully planned 5G transition.” The feud has since gotten ugly. AT&T accuses the AICC of standing in the way of progress. The AICC accuses AT&T of endangering the elderly through negligence. Each side maintains that the other only cares about the financials.
This kind of transition between wireless generations happens about every 10 years. The old standards stick around for a while and then are gradually phased out. It’s a predictable enough cycle, and one companies can prepare for. That is, unless some world-changing, 18-month-long public health crisis pops up. The Covid pandemic has disrupted nearly every industry, including those that rely on 3G technologies. The alarm companies, for instance, say that pandemic restrictions kept them from being able to get into people’s homes to upgrade equipment.
“We were confronted with the pandemic, which took many, many months from us, where seniors and individuals would not allow people in their homes or really weren’t focused on an issue like this,” says Daniel Oppenheim, an AICC spokesperson. “Just as these challenges sort of abated to some degree, we now have supply chain issues around getting products.”
Acknowledging pandemic-induced hardships, most telecom companies have already delayed their 3G sunsets by months to years. Verizon originally began its phaseout of 3G back in 2016, when it announced a target date of 2020. AT&T said the same shortly thereafter. In response to the AICC, AT&T contends that it has done more than enough to prepare customers for the 3G-pocalypse.
“We’re committed to providing our customers with a fast, reliable, and secure network,” an AT&T spokesperson wrote in an email. “These plans are not new, and we have been working with our customers and business clients for more than two years to assist them during this transition.”
“It’s sort of like the whole transition when we went from physical film to digital,” Townsend says. “It’s gonna be painful for some. I think for older folks that aren’t necessarily into the latest and greatest, they might be affected. But I think because the incentives are so compelling from the AT&Ts and the Verizons and whatnot to move people onto the newest technology, from my perspective, it’s not going to be a huge factor.”
Eventually, all things must come to an end. So what does that mean for 4G and 5G? Townsend says not to worry, that 4G is likely to stick around for a long while.
“Each of these generations have been about a decade or more in length,” Townsend says. “There’s plenty of runway here in the future.”
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