The death of 3G will ruin legacy medical devices and vehicles, IEEE warns

AT&T says customers should've upgraded while they had the chance.

Signal tower at the top of the mountain
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With 5G taking off big time across the U.S., cell carriers are planning to shut down legacy networks like 3G. Verizon says its 3G network will no longer be available as of January 1, 2023; T-Mobile is planning to sunset its network on July 1; and AT&T’s has been nonexistent since February 22 of this year.

That means a slew of older devices created to run only on 3G are no longer able to connect to cell networks at all. The IEEE is warning that a not-insignificant number of devices other than smartphones are destined to stop working as 2022 drones on, with Verizon customers being hit last at the end of the year.

Cars, security systems, and medical devices will likely be hit hardest by 3G’s sunsetting, according to the IEEE. While many have been worrying about 5G’s effects on our bodies and our airspace, the real solutions we should’ve been looking for actually have to do with 18-year-old 3G service.

RIP 3G — The sunsetting of a full band of cell service doesn’t happen overnight. As Sundeep Rangan, associate director of NYU Wireless, explains to the IEEE, workers will need to physically go to each AT&T tower to shut down 3G equipment. This process could take weeks or months. The February 22 date simply corresponds to when AT&T will no longer be contractually obligated to provide 3G service.

Approximately 2.7 million customers were still using 3G service in September 2021, according to AT&T. Many of those are likely using 3G cell phones, though others are likely using 3G-connected cars, medical devices, and alarm systems. These devices — which didn’t require faster 4G connections — can get away with less-expensive 3G service.

Not our problem, AT&T says — You may have noticed that many of the devices the IEEE is warning about are extremely important. Medical alert devices, security systems, GPS — all provide services that keep people safe and sound.

The American Association of School Administrators has filed a complaint with the FCC, pleading for a sunsetting delay, because about 10 percent of public school busses in the U.S. still rely on 3G connections. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee and the American Association of Retired Persons have submitted complaints of their own, saying semiconductor shortages and the pandemic have made it difficult for people to upgrade.

AT&T’s response to the FCC: That’s a customer problem, not an us problem. The company says customers have had plenty of time to upgrade their devices to 4G or 5G alternatives, given that it first announced 3G’s shutdown three years ago.

For now, AT&T is simply urging 3G customers to upgrade their devices. Maybe by the time 4G is retired we’ll have a better solution for network sunsetting. But then again… probably not.