3G shutdown will impact mobile phones, security and medical alert systems

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iPhone 5S, left, and iPhone 5c are shown in 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK – As telecommunications companies launch the next generation of mobile services, called 5G, they are shutting down old networks – a costly process, which has been going on for years and is now driving calls for a delay as many products still depend of the old standard, 3G.
AT&T is expected to be the first carrier to shut down its 3G network on February 22. T-Mobile will shut down its 3G network by summer and Verizon in December.
The home alarm industry has asked the Federal Communications Commission, the US regulator, to delay AT&T’s network shutdown until December. The FCC is monitoring the phasing out of 3G and working to “implement safeguards” for older phones and other devices, spokeswoman Paloma Perez said late Monday.
Verizon has already pushed back its shutdown — twice — from an original target date in 2019, saying customers needed more time to update their devices. T-Mobile has also postponed the shutdown of the Sprint 3G network acquired in 2020 until the end of March; it will shut down the T-Mobile 3G network by July 1.
WHY DOES 3G STOP?
First, a bit of history. AT&T’s 3G network launched in the United States in 2004; later that decade it was the exclusive carrier of the first iPhones, helping usher in the first phase of the smartphone era. The networks we currently rely on for video streaming, social apps, Uber, and other modern-era staples primarily use the later 4G standard.
For operators, stopping 3G is an efficiency measure. As they upgrade to newer technology, they cut out obsolete networks and use the freed up bandwidth for newer services that they hope will be more profitable.
WHAT IF I HAVE AN OLDER PHONE?
People with older phones that aren’t 4G compatible will need to upgrade; once 3G is discontinued, these phones will no longer work for calls or texts. AT&T says it has reached out to offer customers free replacements through letters, emails and text messages. Spokesman Jim Greer said less than 1% of AT&T’s consumer devices, including phones, tablets and watches, will lose cell service, but declined to say how many devices that represents. The company reported about 196 million phones and connected devices using its network in the last quarter.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER DEVICES?
Industry groups have also raised concerns about other products that will need to be replaced or updated, from home fire alarms to anklets used by law enforcement. He’s not sure how many products will be deprecated, or how significant it would be if updates occur after February 22.
The alarm industry and other businesses say they’ve had problems replacing the devices, even though they’ve known about the coming shutdown for years. Recent setbacks include both pandemic-triggered supply chain issues and customers reluctant to let technicians into their homes during the pandemic.
HOW MANY EXPIRED PRODUCTS ARE THERE?
It’s not clear. An alarm industry lobby group estimates that 1.5 million customers still need to upgrade their fire or burglar alarms, while around half a million have 3G-powered medical alert devices; he said most rely on AT&T service. Although a fire alarm without a network will sound an alarm if there is smoke, it will not be able to contact the fire department. Likewise, burglar alarms will not be routed to emergency responders if triggered. Not all providers say there is a problem. ADT said in November it was on track to update its AT&T customers by February; a spokesperson declined to provide an update on Sunday.
AARP, the advocacy group for adults over 50, is also concerned that users of medical alert systems — those necklaces and bracelets, like Life Alert — that connect users to emergency call centers don’t know that their gadgets don’t work anymore or won’t work. unable to replace them in time.
HOW SHOULD I PREPARE?
Check your phone to make sure it will still work. Here’s an AT&T list of devices the carrier says will operate normally after Feb. 22. Call the companies that manufacture or service your burglar and fire alarms and personal medical alert systems to see if an update is needed. If so, schedule a service visit immediately or have a new unit shipped.
OK DONE. ANYTHING ELSE SHOULD THEY BE WORRIED?
Some. A manufacturer of anklets for people on probation, parole or temporary release said it had been unable to update many 3G devices. A premature shutdown could potentially leave tens of thousands of offenders like child abusers, sex offenders and drunk drivers unsupervised when they get out of jail, Alcohol Monitoring Systems wrote in an FCC filing. in August. The company did not respond to questions.
Zonar, which provides GPS and other services for buses and trucks, says tens of thousands of vehicles will be affected. Trucks that are not upgraded may have to be idled if drivers cannot electronically record their hours as required by federal rules. Zonar has a workaround for the trucking industry, but not all customers have placed orders for it, said Susan Corscadden, the company’s marketing manager.
Affected school districts may also lose their ability to track the location of school buses, while their drivers may not be able to use GPS systems for directions. The National Association for Pupil Transportation supported those concerns in a September filing, although Noelle Ellerson Ng, the group’s legislative liaison, said in an interview that she hadn’t heard principals raise the question.
DOES THE JUDGMENT SO POSE A SERIOUS THREAT TO PUBLIC SAFETY?
It’s unclear. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the impact and the number of people affected,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, an AARP-affiliated nonprofit. AARP has asked the FCC to delay AT&T’s shutdown until December.
Public Knowledge, a public interest group, also urged the FCC to block the February shutdown unless AT&T can prove that it has ensured that essential services will not be interrupted or that it can restore service immediately if there is a problem.
SO WHY NOT DELAY?
AT&T says delaying the shutdown would hurt its 5G rollout, degrading its customers’ ability to use their service and causing more dropped calls. The company says alarm companies have had years to upgrade their customers’ devices. The company also claims that the FCC does not have the authority to stop its shutdown.

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