The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3G shutdowns could leave most vulnerable without a connection

Older phones, emergency alert devices and alarms are set to lose service in 2022

A transmission tower used for cellphone antennas along Interstate 70 between Frederick and New Market, Md., on Jan. 25, 2014. (Jon Elswick/AP)

The wireless networks that underpin an assortment of devices, including medical-alert alarms, older cellphones and tablets, are about to shut down, an action that consumer advocates say will leave some of society’s most vulnerable people without critical communications tools.

When they were rolled out nearly two decades ago, 3G wireless networks served as the bedrock of an explosion in cellphones and connected devices. Many devices have moved to 4G networks and newer phones are now moving onto 5G.

But a motley assortment still relies on the more rudimentary 3G service — ranging from location sensors that track school buses to connected breathalyzers police use to monitor convicted drunk drivers — and consumer advocates are urging the Federal Communications Commission to slow the change, which is set to start in February.

In 2022, everything from your old phone to your alarm system could stop working as service providers begin to turn off 3G networks in the United States. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Older and low-income Americans are more likely to be affected by the shift, these advocates say. If they don’t upgrade in time, their phones and medical-alert devices won’t be able to call 911 or other emergency services, government regulators warn.

“We need to make sure that we have the timelines that are necessary to make sure we can get everyone upgraded or switched off to new technologies so that nobody does get inadvertently left behind,” said Ryan Johnston, policy counsel of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit organization that works with cities, town and villages on Internet access and adoption. “That’s absolutely the last thing that we want.”

3G networks are shutting down next year. Here’s what you should know.

There’s little current data available on how many Americans still rely on phones or other critical emergency devices that can connect only to 3G networks. A study from the market analysis firm OpenSignal said that as of 2018, nearly 20 percent of Americans were still on 3G networks.

Companies have long planned to phase out 3G networks to free up valuable resources for 5G networks, which carriers say will bring faster speeds and allow more mobile devices to connect than ever before. But the transition has been complicated by the pandemic, as safety concerns hampered outreach, especially to older Americans, and snarled supply chains globally, adding to a chip shortage that makes it more difficult to replace outdated devices.

Phone carriers have resisted slowing the transition, arguing that they have warned for years that the transition is coming and that they’ve taken extensive steps to ensure that their customers aren’t disconnected.

AT&T, which plans to shutter its network in February, says it has reached out to affected customers and provided them with discounted or in some instances free phone upgrades. Other networks, including T-Mobile, have delayed their shutdowns until slightly later to accommodate people who still haven’t upgraded: T-Mobile will shut down Sprint’s 3G network on March 31, 2022; Verizon has said it will shut down its network on Dec. 31, 2022.

But older Americans particularly are finding the transition challenging, especially as the delta variant makes them wary of contact with technicians. Len Fellen, an 87-year-old resident of Jackson, N.J., has suffered two strokes and has diabetes. He relied on a 3G-connected medical alert necklace at home, which he found out he would need to replace.

“I really didn’t want anyone in the house,” he said, noting that he’s very strict about coronavirus protocols. Fellen, who has a degree in electrical engineering, opted to install a new system himself with the help of a technician over the phone. He said it required technical knowledge and the ability to carefully follow instructions.

Others have found themselves going to extraordinary lengths to help relatives upgrade. Andrew, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because of privacy concerns, flew from his home in New York to Florida to upgrade his 89-year-old mother’s Life Station emergency alert system in October to ensure that technicians wouldn’t enter her house. Life Station’s systems rely on AT&T’s wireless network.

“During the pandemic, it’s hard enough as it is to care for my mom,” he said in an interview. “I don’t need to be thinking about this device not working. It always works.”

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Even law enforcement officials are warning they aren’t ready. In North Dakota, police use 3G-connected breathalyzers and bracelets to ensure the sobriety of about 700 people who’ve been convicted of crimes involving alcohol, driving under the influence and domestic violence. A special agent for the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the state’s premier law enforcement agency, recently wrote a letter to the FCC, asking for more time to transition its electronic monitoring software to newer wireless networks.

“This will have a direct impact on the safety of citizens across the nation who utilize our roadways,” the agent, Duane Stanley, wrote.

The transition has been a particular challenge during the pandemic for the alarm industry, because companies often rely on in-home visits to install upgraded systems.

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee, an industry group representing a wide range of alarm companies and personal emergency response systems, says its member companies still have between 4 million and 5 million systems to upgrade.

John Brady, the chief executive officer of Connect America, one of the association’s members that makes emergency alert devices for seniors and other patients, said the company had planned for the transition away from 3G. But suddenly its technicians were unable to enter the homes of its customers, who are largely elderly or sick.

“All of the plans that we had as an industry basically just got blown up,” said Brady, who also serves as a spokesman for the Alarm Industry Communications Committee. “We lost the majority of 2020 to get out and do this deployment.”

Consumer advocates and the alarm industry have been pressing the FCC to step in and ensure that companies extend their timelines for a shutdown until at least the end of 2022. The alarm industry filed a petition calling for the agency to intervene in AT&T’s planned shutdown, and consumer advocates have filed additional comments.

AT&T says that it has spent three years working with customers to transition away from 3G, and that any delay would undermine the shift to 5G — and slow down the new services and jobs that wireless technology could usher in.

“This petition would undermine the evolution to 5G, as it seeks to force us to devote scarce spectrum resources to support relatively few, obsolete 3G-only devices rather than repurposing the spectrum to enhance 5G capacity,” AT&T spokesperson Margaret L. Boles said in a statement.

5G is a little better than before, but don’t rush to upgrade your phone just yet.

Consumer advocates say telecom providers also have strong financial incentives to shut down the older networks. They’re expensive for companies to operate, and as time goes on, they generate lower financial returns as more people migrate to newer, faster options, said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at Public Knowledge. He’s also concerned that the transition could be exploited by phone carriers to upsell customers. Many companies are currently offering consumers free phones or discounted rates as they transition to faster networks.

“Once those rates end, you’re going to have potentially higher fees for various services that you might get free on introductory plans,” Feld said.

The FCC so far has taken a largely passive approach to the transition. The commission is “reviewing the record that’s been compiled on this issue,” said Paloma Perez, a spokeswoman for the FCC. That includes comments various companies and advocacy groups filed after the Alarm Industry Communications Committee filed its petition challenging AT&T’s timeline. AT&T is significant, Feld said, because its networks are widely used by alarm companies, as well as people with prepaid phones.

The FCC has issued an online guide about the shutdown for consumers and has shared it with more than 2,000 partners around the country, including AARP, state broadcast associations and other groups.

This isn’t the first time there has been a transition like this. Many carriers shut down their 2G networks over the years to free up airwaves for 4G networks. But Feld said the stakes are different this time because of how ubiquitous wireless technology has become.

“We didn’t have the embedded use in all aspects of our lives for wireless that we have now,” he said.

The FCC has intervened before when there were concerns that phasing out old technology would leave people vulnerable in emergencies, said Tom Wheeler, who chaired the FCC during the administration of President Barack Obama. He confronted a similar challenge during his tenure after Hurricane Sandy, when telecom companies did not want to replace landlines wiped out by the disaster. The move raised alarms because landlines enable people to call emergency services even when the power is out. Ultimately, Wheeler said, the FCC brokered a deal where the phone companies provided backup batteries to ensure that people would still be able to use wireless phones in an emergency.

“That’s what the FCC gets paid for,” he said.

In the meantime, consumer advocates are focusing on alerting city governments about the transition and how it might disproportionately affect low-income and elderly Americans, so they can take inventory of who in their communities might need to upgrade.

“A lot of the time, there’s a really large informational disconnect between what’s happening at the FCC and what’s happening on the ground with the municipalities we work with,” Johnston said.


A previous version of this story said that Andrew lives in New Jersey. He lives in New York.


A previous version of this story referred to medical-alert devices as life-alert devices Life Alert Emergency Response, a company that makes medical-alert devices, updated its equipment to 4G-technology in anticipation of the shutdown, according to its chief marketing officer Olga Vlasova.