If you’ve had your mobile phone for more than five years, you may need to upgrade or replace it soon, with older 3G network technology set to be replaced by a speedier technology starting next year.
The 3G network, or third-generation mobile network, launched in 2001 and brought fast internet access to cellphones, creating a boom in consumers owning phones for streaming music, playing games and all sorts of uses other than talking. Some 20 years later, that technology has been slowly replaced by the newer 5G networks with much faster download speeds for new applications like telemedicine and artificial intelligence. They also can support many more users simultaneously without slowing the network.
That’s good news for consumers who want to stream movies and music faster, but it’s bad news for those with older phones that won’t be usable anymore. The shutdown, which will be staggered throughout next year depending on the service provider, will affect other electronic devices using 3G networks such as medical alert devices, smart watches, vehicle SOS services, home security systems, tablets and devices that use cellular connectivity as a backup when a wired connection goes down.
Here’s what you need to know to prepare for the change.
Why are the 3G networks being eliminated?
Mobile service carriers upgrade to the latest technologies and occasionally shut down older services like 3G to free up transmission frequencies and build the infrastructure to support new services like 5G, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates wireless carriers and has a “plan ahead” primer on its website.
When will the changeover occur?
The switch will start on Jan. 1, 2022, although the completion of the complete phase out of 3G services varies by company and could change.
AT&T plans to shut down its 3G service by February 2022. Details about its plans, including which phone models are affected and how to upgrade, are on its website.
Verizon plans to shut its network by Dec. 31, 2022, and has published a list of affected models and services on its website. A company executive estimated that fewer than 1 percent of its customers nationwide still access its 3G network. Some of the phone models its website lists as being 3G are the Samsung Galaxy S4 or earlier and the Apple iPhone 5 series or older.
T-Mobile, which runs the Sprint and T-Mobile networks, said it will finish shutting down the Sprint 3G network by March 31, 2022 and the Sprint LTE network by June 30, 2022. It also plans to stop the T-Mobile 3G network by July 1, 2022. It has not yet announced a shutdown date for its 2G network, although competitors AT&T and Verizon no longer support 2G. More details are on its website.
The FCC said the dates could change, so customers should check with their mobile service provider to keep track of the sunset date for the network and to find out if their phone is affected.
It is unclear how many Mainers still use 3G service, but GSMA Intelligence said only 4 percent of wireless connections in 2020 were over 3G networks.
What actions do consumers need to take?
Planning now is important as losing 3G connectivity also means older cellphones won’t be able to make or receive calls or texts, including 911 calls.
Find out whether your mobile device, whether it is a phone, medical device or other critical service, will be affected. That can be done by contacting your mobile provider or checking its website.
Some devices may only need a software update, for example, to enable a feature called HD Voice, or Voice over LTE, which is necessary on the 5G network. You can check your phone’s cellular data settings to see whether you have Voice over LTE.
Consumers should call their service provider for medical alert devices, home security systems and other services to make sure they will still operate.
Those who decide to not get a new phone should talk to their carrier about canceling their plan and ask to do so without a penalty. Otherwise, they may continue getting billed.
A resale market for older phones is unlikely, so consumers should take them for recycling at a phone store or repurpose them as an alarm clock, gaming machine or other use.
Is there help available?
Replacing a device that cannot access the faster 5G network can be expensive, but there is help. The FCC’s Lifeline program provides a discount on phone service to eligible consumers. The FCC emergency broadband benefit provides a temporary discount of up to $50 per month for broadband service to eligible households during the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadband could be used for audio and video calls over the internet if a person no longer wants a mobile phone. Carriers also may offer discounts, rebates or free upgrades on phones.