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Phase out of 3G cell networks could silence some cellphones, medical and alarm devices

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Steve Cross

Steve Cross says his older-model cellphone works just fine and believes it makes no sense to have to give it up because phone companies are turning off their 3G cell networks.

Steve Cross is emphatic: He is not opposed to technology.

Back in 1981, Cross was among the few people in the U.S. to have a cellphone. It was a business necessity for the then-salesman.

Fast forward to 2022, he's among the minority of people still possessing a 3G cellphone, and he's none too happy about being forced to get rid of it.

U.S. cellphone companies are shutting down 3G service this year to make room for faster technology, specifically the next big advance in cellular technology, the 5G network.

With the shutdown, not only will old cellphones stop working, but so will some other systems, if they haven't been updated.

Among them are older-model fire and burglar alarms, some medical alert devices that the homebound wear around their wrists or necks, some Kindle readers, some law enforcement monitoring devices and some older automotive communications devices like mapping or call-for-help services.

Cross, who describes himself as frugal but technologically engaged, is among those who say the change is unnecessary.

"Just to discard something because it's not the latest thing," he said, "that's disgraceful."

Others say it could be dangerous.

John Brady, spokesman for the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, said companies and individuals need more time to upgrade their equipment. His organization and others have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a delay and have requested that Congress also ask the FCC for the delay.

The groups want AT&T to follow the schedule mapped out by Verizon and wait until Dec. 31 to shutter its 3G network. AT&T plans to finish shutting down its 3G network by Feb. 22.

AT&T, he said, is a major player in providing cell service to alarm systems.

The alarm industry group estimates that 1.5 million to 2 million customers have yet to upgrade emergency devices.

"People are going to wake up on the morning of Feb. 23, and they are going to find that a lot of things they are used to using no longer work," Brady said. "People think they'll be able to hit a button and it will save their lives, but it isn't going to work."

In a sense, that's already happened, according to a locally owned medical alert company.

Dan Ward, president of Omaha-based MediGuard USA, said his company started noticing problems last year when multiple individual personal alert systems began sending error messages.

MediGuard provides medical alerts that people wear around their necks and then press a button if they need help.

When the company mapped the service outages, it realized the problem was that 3G had been disabled from nearby cell towers.

The problem first surfaced in North Omaha and toward Blair, and now Ward estimates that 3G has been eliminated in about half of the metro area.

"It's a big issue," he said.

His company has upgraded more than 95% of its customers and has just a few left to convert, he said, but any company that hasn't been keeping up could get caught flat-footed. 

According to local and state officials, this is a commercial issue, and in terms of regulation, it's handled at the federal level.

AT&T, for its part, says that the alarm industry's claims are overstated. The alarm industry has had several years to make the transition, and AT&T says any further delay will undercut the rollout of its 5G network. The company operates differently from Verizon and says it would be at a disadvantage if it followed Verizon's schedule.

"For the last three years, careful planning and coordinated work with our customers has gone into the transition to 5G," AT&T said in a statement provided to The World-Herald. "Forcing a delay would needlessly waste valuable spectrum resources and degrade network performance for millions of our customers."

Brady said the alarm industry recognizes the importance of moving forward with 5G, but that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into making the upgrades. The public has been distracted, senior citizens haven't wanted workers in their homes, and now there are chip and labor shortages that have delayed field work.

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all plan to finish shutting down their 3G networks this year. The cell service providers say doing so is necessary to support the faster, more versatile networks that today's consumers want. Notably, they say, it helps open the door to 5G, a type of cell network that will interconnect many products and services well beyond cellphones.

According to T-Mobile, the changeover will lead to broadband speeds increasing by 100 to 300 times and 911 emergency services being enhanced through better location information.

Once 3G networks are shuttered, 3G-only phones will no longer be able to make or receive calls (including 911), send or receive text messages, or provide services that require data. There's no easy way to describe which older model cellphones operate only on 3G. 

People with obsolete phones should already have been contacted by their provider. Likewise, people and businesses with affected medical or alarm devices should have received notification from the company that services the equipment.

In Cross' case, recorded messages from AT&T interrupted his phone calls to tell him of the impending end of phone service.

If you are concerned your phone or device might be affected, you can learn more by contacting your service provider or looking up your device on your service company's website. More information also is available at the Federal Communications Commission's website.

In some cases, you'll find the problem can be resolved through a software upgrade, but in other cases, you will need to buy a new device. It's not known how many cellphone or emergency alert customers have devices still vulnerable to a 3G shutdown. Verizon and AT&T have estimated that fewer than 1% of their customers have yet to make the switch, according to representatives of those companies.

A spokesman for the FCC said the agency doesn't comment on pending rulings, so it's not known if or when the commission will act on the request for a delay.

The FCC has been working since 2019 to educate people about the change, according to a statement provided to The World-Herald. In August, the commission sent out reminders to 2,000 groups across the country, including AARP, the National Urban League and state and local agencies.

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., sits on the Senate subcommittee on communications, media and broadband, which oversees cellphone service and the FCC.

Asked about whether AT&T's shutdown should be delayed, she said in a statement: “It's critical that all carriers coordinate with the FCC and their customers for a smooth transition. My hope is that the eventual network upgrades will benefit all consumers and strengthen our communications infrastructure."

For Cross, a construction engineer, the changeover is a task he has been able to manage. 

Cross said he doesn't believe in consumerism so rather than get a new high-end phone, he'll make do with a used iPhone.

"I'll be dragged into this," he said. "From what I've seen online, people are more connected in a negative way."


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