Kami Griffiths has a perfectly fine phone. It’s your standard Samsung Galaxy smartphone with all the important apps, a decent camera and a screen big enough to watch videos. It’s so fine, in fact, she’s had it since 2016 without ever feeling the need to drop hundreds of dollars on an upgrade.
Come next year though, Griffiths won’t have a choice. That’s the current deadline for when the only cellular network her phone can use will shut down forever.
All of the major cellphone carriers — AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile — are planning to shut their older 3G networks in 2022. Like millions of people in the United States who use 3G phones and other 3G devices, she will have to buy a new device if she wants to text, make calls or even reach 911.
When these deadlines do roll around, Griffith’s own phone could be the least of her problems. Griffiths, who is an executive director and co-founder of Community Tech Network — a nonprofit that focuses on digital literacy in San Francisco — is worried that the group’s clients, a mix of mostly older adults and low-income residents, will find themselves either without a working phone, or could struggle to figure out how to use a new device.
“It’s going to be very difficult for them. They’re not going to be at all happy,” said Griffiths, who notes older tech users have a harder time figuring out new devices. “If it works fine, they don’t want to change a thing.”
Why is this happening?
3G network technology has been around in the United States for two decades. Verizon launched the first 3G network in the nation in 2002, and 4G has been around since 2010. In 2019, carriers started slowly rolling out 5G networks and soon the big companies were launching 5G smartphones. Now they need to focus their resources on building out those newer networks, while saving money on maintaining the older ones.
“The reason the carriers would like to get rid of old legacy tech is to free up that wireless spectrum,” said Ian Fogg, vice president of analysis at mobile analytics firm Opensignal. “If you switch off older tech in most markets, most countries, your spectrum license allows you to use that with newer networks like 4G and 5G.”
When do the networks shut down?
The shutdown dates start in January 2022 and are spread out throughout the year. At this time, the dates are all confirmed and the carriers are proceeding as if they are set in stone. However, the Federal Communications Commission recently accepted comments from groups and people concerned about the shutdown, which could lead to a delay.
- Sprint’s 3G: Jan. 1, 2022
- AT&T’s 3G: Feb. 22, 2022
- Sprint’s LTE: June 30, 2022
- Verizon’s 3G: Dec. 31, 2022
- T-Mobile’s 2G and 3G: Not yet announced
What happens to 3G phones after that date?
Your phone will no longer be able to make phone calls. Apps and websites will not work over a cellular connection. You will not be able to dial 911. The phone will still be able to work over WiFi for certain tasks.
How do I know if I have a 3G device?
The carriers say they’ve been alerting customers who are on older phones that services are ending, sending a combination of texts, letters, phone calls and emails. If you have a service plan and have not heard from your carrier, you should be fine but you can log into your account to double check. If you’re still unsure, or wondering about an old device not on a cell plan, there are some ways to check.
iPhones older than the iPhone 6 will no longer work for calls and data, including the iPhone 5, 5C and 5S. If you have a Samsung Galaxy S4 or older it is a 3G device, but newer models may still need an update to work. If you have other devices not mentioned here, go to your carrier or the manufacturer’s website to look up a list of supported phones.
Most people do not have to worry. The vast majority of phones in use are already on 4G and 5G networks. According to mobile network industry group GSMA Intelligence, in 2020 only 4 percent of all connections were over 3G in the United States.
Will it impact anything other than phones?
Yes. Phones aren’t the only technology impacted by the sunsetting of these networks. There are e-readers like the Kindle with 3G, portable Internet hotspots, kid’s wearables, alarm systems, personal alarm devices, alcohol monitoring devices and various other Internet-of-things devices that rely on 3G. There are also non-consumer products like systems used by the trucking industry and school bus dispatchers. If you have any kind of home security system or medical alert devices, like the kind that can call for help if you fall, call the company to make sure it is still supported.
How do I get a new phone?
Most carriers are offering free and low-cost replacement phones to customers with 3G devices, though the exact offers vary. For example, AT&T’s free phone options depend on what’s in stock and will be similar to your current device. If you’re worried about having to learn your way around a new device, look for something that runs the same operating system from the same manufacturer. If you’re ready for a big upgrade, see if your carrier has any offers or rebates for the newest smartphones. (Some older phones can continue working on 4G and 5G networks with a software update and a new SIM card from your carrier.)
What if I just really love my flip phone?
Are you still using a 3G phone because you didn’t want to upgrade to a smartphone? Or is the shutdown affecting someone in your life who you think might struggle with a newer device? The good news is there are plenty of new flip phones (a.k.a. feature phones) that work perfectly well on next-generation networks. That’s only been the standard for the past two to three years for these devices, so make sure you buy a new device or carefully check network compatibility.
Do I need to cancel my carrier plan?
If you decide that you would rather forge ahead without a phone than upgrade, then yes you need to cancel. Most carriers will let you cancel your plan without any penalty. However, if you forget to cancel your phone plan and don’t upgrade to a working device, the company won’t automatically stop charging just because you aren’t able to access their network.
So, what do I do with this old phone now?
The 3G shutdown is making millions of devices useless. They won’t net much if anything on resell sites, but you can try to repurpose them. If it’s a smartphone with WiFi, you may not have a phone, but it can still be repurposed as a nice tiny TV, portable radio, social media portal and game playing machine. Or at the very least, an alarm clock. Even an old 3G Kindle can still get books if you plug it into your computer and transfer them over.
Companies don’t make it easy to repurpose old electronics. They’re often locked into proprietary systems, even when they become obsolete. But if you’re willing to break a few rules you could even try taking them apart and experimenting with the software and hardware.
“There’s not enough attention to this idea that we should try to maintain the stuff we’ve already built and manufacturers don’t have an incentive to do that,” said Nathan Proctor, the director of the campaign for the right to repair, at the public interest group U.S. PIRG. “Maybe it can’t be a phone any more, or it can’t be a phone in the way it used to be, but I’d like to see the opportunity for it to be something.”
If all else fails, recycle it responsibly following these guidelines.
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