3G’s Final Sunset Has Begun

Article By : Dan Jones

AT&T's closure of its 3G network is significant for the range of devices affected, but the night is just beginning.

AT&T’s closure of its 3G network on Feb. 22 was the first major shutdown of 3G technology in the U.S. It is only the beginning of the end for the long–running cellular technology in North America.

T–Mobile is shutting down Sprint’s 2G and 3G CDMA networks at the end of March. Its 3G GSM–based network will follow on Jul. 1. Verizon is the last in line, planning to shut down its 3G CDMA network at the end of 2022.

We don’t know exactly how many devices in the U.S. still run on 3G. In May 2019, Telit said that more than 80 million devices still use 3G networks in North America. Certainly, plenty of automobiles, alarms, mobile personal emergency response system (mPERS) products, and other enterprise and consumer IoT devices run on antiquated 3G radio technology.

Automobiles

Cars are one of the costliest items that people own that have been affected by AT&T’s 3G shutdown. Ma Bell’s sunset reportedly blocked connectivity for millions of vehicles.

Notably, many models have lost the ability to automatically connect with emergency personnel after an accident. Automatic crash notification, which alerts first responders of a crash and shares the car’s location, has frequently used 3G modules to connect to cellular infrastructure.

Consumer Reports says although automakers knew that the cellular technology was shutting down this year, some manufacturers relied on 3G until as late as the 2021 vehicle model. Car manufacturers used the cheapest connectivity module available, one that implemented 3G rather than a newer technology such as 4G LTE or 5G. This will hardly be a surprise for those that have witnessed how auto makers have dealt with ongoing chip shortages due to the pandemic.

Some vehicles will require a software upgrade to fix the 3G issue, while others will need a costly hardware update. Several vehicles will lose their connection to the outside world permanently.

Alarms

The alarm and home monitoring industry — one of the most vocal complainants about AT&T’s 3G sunset — gained some limited and temporary respite from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which will allow compatible AT&T 3G alarm panels to connect to the T–Mobile 3G network. This is a very short-term fix because the T–Mobile 3G network is due to shut down on Jul. 1, 2022.

The alarm industry has approximately 4 million alarm panels running on AT&T’s 3G GSM network in U.S. homes. Around 2 million run on Verizon’s 3G CDMA network.

The industry claims that the Covid–19 pandemic in 2020 dramatically slowed its efforts to replace 3G radios. Any industry that relies on 3G radios, however, should have been forewarned long before a global health crisis caught it off guard.

Verizon warned in July 2018 that it would shut its 3G network down at the end of December 2019. The carrier has since postponed that event a couple of times, but Verizon will now sunset its 3G network on Dec. 31, 2022, after AT&T and T–Mobile have done the same.

The makeshift 3G fix is only possible because AT&T and T–Mobile both have GSM–based networks for 3G. “This is not a global solution, but will hopefully apply to about 25 percent of existing 3G alarm radios, including certain PERS units as well as fire/burglar/CO radios,” said Lou Fiore, chairman of The Monitoring Association’s Alarm Industry Communications Committee in an email sent to members.

Before the T–Mobile 3G sunset comes on in July, the alarm industry will be scrambling to replace the obsolete AT&T home alarm panels with 3G radios that still work. You probably shouldn’t expect all million (or so) AT&T radio panels to be replaced in time, though. Expect more industry complaints when T–Mobile shuts down its network.

Medical devices

3G mPERS devices still remain a key concern for many in the field. Medical alert executives told CNBC in February that most of the industry runs on AT&T, which means that a significant proportion of the devices in use would be cut off on Feb. 22, 2022. Certain personal emergency response units were covered under the FCC’s last–minute roaming permit, but it’s not clear how many.

USA Today, meanwhile, says that half a million wearable emergency–alert devices need replacement, thanks, in part, to supply chain shortages. That’s a serious number of seniors, heart patients, and others suffering from significant diseases who can’t access mobile devices that would improve their lives, ensure their safety, or aid in their recovery.

This piece just gives a snapshot of the many devices that have been cut off by AT&T’s 3G shutdown. As a major provider for all types of 3G devices, Ma Bell’s ride into the sunset is very significant. There will still be major shutdowns when Verizon turns off its 3G at the end of the year.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

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