The end of 3G worries emergency services, MVNOs and car manufacturers


US wireless carriers have begun shutting down their 3G networks as they expand their 4G and 5G offerings. Carriers say the change is long overdue, while other players say it’s causing headaches for consumers, alarm services and 911 operators.

The 3G sunset began last month when AT&T Inc. began phasing out the technology. T-Mobile US Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are expected to begin disconnecting 3G networks later this year.

With the phasing out of 3G, some mobile phones and connected devices will no longer be able to make or receive calls and texts, use data or contact emergency services. While 3G mobile phones have been largely phased out by major carriers, some are still in use, especially among mobile virtual network operator customers. Additionally, some older home security, medical monitoring, and car services depend on 3G services.

“Having better and faster wireless service across the country is an important goal, but as we develop and deploy new technologies, we must always strive to do so in a safe and inclusive manner,” said Nicholas Garcia, Policy Advisor at Public Knowledge, a public interest group specializing in Internet accessibility.


Jeff Moore, director of Wave7 Research, a wireless research company, said AT&T’s shutdown was causing significant problems for its mobile virtual network operators, also known as MVNOs. MVNOs are wireless service providers that do not own the wireless network infrastructure over which they provide services.

As of March 10, 2022, Consumer Cellular, one of AT&T’s major MVNOs, posted a notice on its website acknowledging customer connectivity issues. The company said it was experiencing a high volume of calls due to the shutdown.

“Due to the nationwide rollback of 3G wireless networks by all carriers, some devices are experiencing connectivity issues,” the advisory said.

Moore said most of the disruption, however, will be to car and connected device users, not voice customers, as most voice customers have already been upgraded from 3G phones. While some 3G-connected devices will retain their usefulness after 3G is discontinued, many will require hardware and software modifications to continue functioning.

“The percentage of voice customers affected is tiny and the offers have been generous to get them to upgrade to 4G and 5G,” Moore explained.

Emergency home appliances

The Internet of Things, which refers to the system connecting consumer products to the internet, is expected to lose contact with some devices as 3G networks shut down.

Device makers will blame the networks when faced with consumer backlash and the possibility of having to spend more money to upgrade their customers, said Lynette Luna, an analyst at Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“I understand that component shortages have hurt the transition to new technologies, but IoT companies have known this for a while and it’s really hard to blame carriers when they see very little data traffic. coming on 3G and huge surges on their 4G and 5G networks,” Luna said. “They need that spectrum.”

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

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Pandemic impact

Although all of the wireless companies involved announced their intention to discontinue 3G before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld said that unforeseen circumstances, such as Labor and chip shortages, as well as the inability of older people to allow service workers into their homes due to virus concerns, have kept many Americans from modernizing.

Feld wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission in February opposing the shutdowns, saying they put vulnerable communities at risk. AT&T’s network shutdown will critically disrupt home medical alert systems, DUI monitoring systems, home confinement alarms and other systems needed to protect life and safety, it said. -he writes.

“While AT&T argues that alarm companies could have diverted resources from new subscribers early in the pandemic, this is an unreasonable argument,” Feld wrote. “The people wanting to have new alarms installed in 2020 were not the same people who already had them and were unwilling to allow workers into their homes. Nor could the alarm industry reasonably predict the duration and severity of the chip shortage.”

Just over two weeks after AT&T began shutting down 3G, Bill Signer, executive general manager of Carmen Group, a government affairs consultancy, said that while it’s hard to measure the number of injuries not reported due to disconnections at this stage. , disturbances certainly cause problems.

“Many 911 switchboards are lit with signals that certain devices are no longer working, distracting operators,” Signer said in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Feld said the majority of emergency technology runs on AT&T’s network. While Verizon and T-Mobile’s 3G sunsets will likely cause similar issues, the magnitude will be smaller. Because AT&T was the first and largest emergency service provider to shut down, the negative effects were magnified, he said.

In an August 2021 petition to the FCC, AT&T representatives wrote that the global chip shortage should not excuse alarm companies from upgrading their systems.

“Whatever the precise dimensions of the global chip shortage, it hasn’t stopped major alarm companies from continuing to win and activate new customers, as confirmed by very positive investor presentations,” the company said. petition.


3G technology has also enabled motorists to use GPS navigation, locate stolen vehicles and contact 911 for over 20 years.

Some automakers have posted information on their websites to answer common questions about the technology involved. General Motors Co., for example, wrote that vehicles using OnStar on a 3G network will require a software update by February 2022. AT&T is OnStar’s sole network provider.

The rise of smartphones, which 85% of Americans now own, according to Pew Research, has made drivers less dependent on in-car technologies like navigation and emergency calls. Roger Lancot, director of automotive connected mobility at the consulting firm Strategy Analytics, said he doesn’t expect all affected auto owners to benefit from the upgrades, as many feel comfortable relying solely on their smartphones for emergencies. Despite high smartphone usage in the United States, Lanctot expects automakers to include a variety of data-dependent in-car technologies for years to come.

“From a business perspective, if you’re an automaker, you want to be connected to your customer,” Lanctot said. “You don’t want to be dependent on a smartphone app or the smartphone provider to be connected with your customer; you want to know how the vehicle is performing and you want access to diagnostic data. You want to be there for that customer in the best like in the worst circumstances.”

The risk goes beyond consumer vehicles, where most drivers have smartphones, Feld said.

“School buses as well as trucks automatically report vehicle safety data over 3G networks,” Feld said in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence. “If the operators no longer have access to them, the vehicles at risk will be on the road.”


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