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If you still have 3G, it may be time to upgrade your phone before it’s too late

An attendee uses a smartphone during a conference in Texas.Bloomberg Creative Photos/Bloomberg

Libby Levison recently arranged for an important call to be made to her cell phone at an agreed upon time. But 15 minutes passed and still no call.

Finally, an alert popped up on her phone saying she had a new voicemail. But when she tried to listen to it, Levison was diverted to an AT&T customer service recording, which informed her she needed to upgrade her phone in order to maintain service.

That’s how Levison found out that older phones like hers will soon become obsolete because the big carriers are taking down old-technology networks after about 20 years.

AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are dropping the networks they call “3G” in 2022 to make room for networks that are more technologically advanced — networks called 5G (for “fifth generation”). 5G, already in use in some locations, needs room to grow.


The carriers say by “sunsetting” 3G they will be able to provide faster, better service (and with phones that have longer battery life).

Levison says she takes issue with the way she was informed of the change. It would have been nice to have received a heads-up in a letter in the mail, an e-mail, or a text message, said Levison, 60, a consultant on international public health who lives in Harvard.

Instead, AT&T abruptly cut off incoming and outgoing calls on her phone, and routed her to a queue of callers waiting for customer service, causing her to miss her important call.

“What if I needed to make an emergency call?” said Levison, thinking about how suddenly her calls were blocked.

An AT&T spokeswoman said it has been e-mailing and texting affected customers for about a year.

Here’s what you should know about the “sunsetting” of 3G:

Q. Could I lose my ability to dial 911?

A. Yes. When the change comes, many older cell phones will be unable to make or receive calls and texts, including calls to 911, or use data services, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Many of the phones about to lose service belong to older people who don’t use them for browsing the Internet or watching video. Especially vulnerable may be those people who keep a phone (turned off to save battery) stashed somewhere at home or in their car’s glove compartment in case of emergency.


Q. How do I know if my phone model needs to be upgraded?

A. The surest way to find out is to contact your carrier by calling customer service, dropping into one of their stores, or checking their websites. (Here’s a list of affected models from AT&T, for example.) As a general rule, if your phone dates back to 2012 or earlier, your network is about to be eliminated. If you have an iPhone 6 or later model, you probably won’t be affected. The same is true if you have a Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini or later model, or a Pixel 2 or later Google model.

But there are hundreds of phone models in use. Contact your carrier to be sure yours is still good.

Q. Is there an easy way to know for sure what network I am on?

A. Yes, check the upper right corner of your phone. The network you are on should be displayed there. Of course, it won’t display if you are using wi-fi at home, work, or other location. Once I disconnected from wi-fi, my iPhone, which is less than a year old, displayed “5G.” I won’t be affected by the 3G shutdown.


Q. Are there other safety implications to the impending 3G shutdown?

A. Yes, the “sunsetting” of 3G could affect other connected devices, including certain medical devices, tablets, smart watches, vehicle SOS services, and home security systems, the FCC says. If your device is not labeled with the network it uses, the FCC recommends contacting the monitoring company or other service provider to determine if your device will be impacted.

Q. What about 4G phones?

A. The FCC says older 4G phones that do not support Voice over LTE (VoLTE) or HD voice could be affected. Some 4G phones are hybrid, meaning they are 4G for some functions, but 3G for others. It’s something you should check.

Q. When is 3G being eliminated?

A. AT&T says it is shutting down 3G in February. Verizon says it will shutdown 3G by Dec. 31, 2022. T-Mobile, which merged with Sprint, has announced it will finish shutting down Sprint’s 3G CDMA network by March 31, and Sprint’s 4G LTE network by June 30. It has also announced it will shut down T-Mobile’s 3G UMTS network by July 1, but has not yet announced a shutdown date for its oldest network, 2G.

The FCC cautions that these dates are for completing shutdowns, and that carriers may begin closing down parts of its networks sooner. It behooves you to check with your carrier.


Q. What about Cricket and other smaller carriers?

A. They may be affected too, because they piggyback on the networks of the major carriers. (The major carriers, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, control about 98 percent of the market.)

Q. Why is this happening?

A. Cell phone carriers periodically upgrade their networks, but they don’t have an unlimited amount of spectrum, which is the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over. So, to improve their service, the carriers free up spectrum by removing older networks.

Carriers have cycled through one generation of network after another, dating back more than 20 years.

Q. How many people will be affected in Massachusetts?

A. It’s probably tens of thousands, based on the limited information released by carriers.

Q. How much will it cost customers to upgrade?

A. Carriers say there is no new monthly cost for service, and that they are offering discounted or free phones. Levison said she is awaiting delivery by mail of a free phone offered by AT&T.

Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.