If you’re one of the millions of Americans who uses an old cell phone, has an older alarm system in your home, or wears certain personal medical alert devices, then sometime in the next six months you may suddenly find that your device no longer works. That’s because mobile phone companies are barreling ahead with plans to shut down their antiquated 3G wireless networks. The Federal Communications Commission recently published a consumer advisory detailing the exact timelines and what people can do to prepare for it.
Generally, the idea behind the shutdown is a good thing: 3G networks are old and inefficient. Phone companies plan to reallocate the wireless spectrum currently used by 3G networks to faster and more efficient 5G networks. That will mean better, more reliable service for their customers using the latest 5G-enabled devices. Unfortunately, it also means that people without 4G- or 5G-enabled devices will suddenly find themselves with a useless lump of plastic instead of a phone when the 3G networks go dark.
Many Connected Devices — Such as Alarm and Monitoring Systems — Still Use 3G.
The impact of the 3G sunset extends beyond the estimated 10-15 million Americans with 3G only phones. In an emergency petition to the FCC the Alarm Industry Communications Council (AICC), a trade association that represents alarm system operators, points out that many alarm systems rely on the 3G wireless networks. That means many home security systems, fire alarms in commercial buildings, and even personal medical alert devices used by folks when they’ve “fallen and can’t get up” will become inoperable when some carriers shut down their 3G networks at the end of this year as planned.
Alarm companies have tried to replace older equipment that uses 3G, but complications from COVID-19 have delayed these efforts. Some mobile phone companies, like Verizon, have delayed their shutdowns to the end of 2022, but AT&T—which operates the 3G network used by many alarm systems—has opposed the alarm industry’s request for a delay, and is pushing full steam ahead to complete their shutdown by the end of the year. This is why, yesterday, Public Knowledge filed reply comments in support of the AICC petition and has previously urged the FCC to mediate this dispute. The auto industry and AARP have also warned the FCC that premature shutdown of 3G networks will impact medical monitoring services and auto safety services.
To be clear, Public Knowledge fully supports AT&T shutting down its 3G network and deploying 5G to all Americans as quickly as possible. But that cannot come at the cost of cutting off life-saving medical monitoring and alarm services.
Similarly, T-Mobile plans to sunset the Sprint 3G network (the two companies merged in 2020) by January 1, 2022. That is especially a problem for Boost Mobile customers still using the Sprint network, a significant proportion of whom are low-income and rely on older devices for their pre-paid service. Boost, formerly part of Sprint, was spun off to DISH Networks as a condition of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. DISH maintains that millions of Boost customers will lose service as a result of T-Mobile shutting off the Sprint 3G network. (Other carriers have expressed concern about the impact on customers who rely on the Sprint and T-Mobile 3G networks for roaming.)
T-Mobile argues that it needs Sprint’s valuable midband spectrum to roll out 5G services and meet its own build out deadlines. DISH argues that T-Mobile committed to keeping the Sprint 3G network up and running for three years after the transaction and that shutting down the Sprint network is blatantly anticompetitive–a view which the Department of Justice seems to share. T-Mobile argues that it has complied with its contract with DISH and that DISH could simply give Boost customers new phones that work on 4G and 5G networks. DISH responds that, despite its best efforts, diminished foot traffic into Boost stores (one of the only reliable ways of contacting pre-paid customers that often don’t even provide a full name), as well as the pandemic-related global chipset shortage, have made it impossible to upgrade everyone to new devices before the deadline.
As with the dispute between AT&T and alarm service providers, the important question for consumers is not who should get blamed. The important question is how to free up spectrum for 5G while making sure that subscribers don’t lose access to 911 and basic communications services.
The FCC Can Use Its Authority to Ensure a Swift, Smooth and Safe 3G Sunset.
Thankfully, the FCC has the authority to play referee when problems like this crop up. In the past, the FCC has presided over other transitions from one generation of communications technology to the next, such as the transitions from analog to digital for wireless networks and television. Those transitions involved shutting down the old analog networks to make way for new digital technology, and the FCC took an active role in guiding those processes to make sure they happened smoothly, with minimal service interruptions. Public Knowledge has called upon the FCC to do the same thing with this transition. The FCC has the power to gather information to find out what companies really need in order to upgrade their customers away from 3G, how long it will take, and what harms might come about if there’s a delay in the shutdown of the 3G networks. While companies like AT&T and T-Mobile are eager to keep to their pre-pandemic schedules, the FCC would be in a much better position to determine if that’s a sensible course of action.
As we deploy new and improved technologies, we must also remember those who struggle to keep up. The improvements to service promised by 5G are significant, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of the most vulnerable Americans. Overwhelmingly it will be the poor, sick, and elderly that are hardest hit by a rushed shut down of the 3G networks. They might unexpectedly find themselves without a phone to contact their friends, loved ones, or medical professionals, or that the alarm and medical alert systems they rely upon to keep them safe no longer work. Especially now, as we continue the arduous process of recovery from the pandemic, it is critical not to forget the lessons learned about the importance of connectivity, and to remember that this time has brought with it challenges for everyone.
Hopefully the FCC will rise to the occasion once again, and will actively oversee the sunset of 3G. Yet each of us also has a part to play; if you or someone you know has an old cell phone, an alarm system, or relies on some other wirelessly connected device, check out the FCC’s consumer guide and our Public Knowledge explainer. If you think you may need a new device, hardware upgrades, or even just new software to make sure you and your loved ones stay connected, contact your service provider.