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As 3G dies, old phones aren’t the only victims

Car safety systems, burglar alarms, medical devices could also shut down.

An ADT Security Services sign sits on display in front of a home. Photographer: Chris Rank/BloombergCHRIS RANK/BLOOMBERG NEWS

When millions of obsolete mobile phones stop working next year, they’ll have plenty of company.

In 2022, the nation’s wireless carriers will shut down their 3G data networks to make room for better 4G and 5G services. The transition will affect not only phones, but also countless other devices that rely on 3G data links — home security systems, medical alert devices for senior citizens, the driver assistance systems inside many cars, and even the ankle bracelets used by law enforcement agencies to keep track of parolees.

Ben Coleman, a school teacher in Fall River, has already paid a high price for the impending death of 3G service. About a year ago, Coleman received an e-mail from BMW about his 2014 i3 electric car. The message warned that “the 3G was going to stop working and that they were not going to replace the module,” Coleman said.

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“The i3 had limited range, so the only way I could make it to work in the winter is if I pre-heated the battery,” Coleman said. “The only way to schedule that is via a 3G cellular connection.” Without an Internet connection, the car would be useless to him. So in May, Coleman sold his fully paid-for i3 and now makes monthly payments on a new Chevrolet Bolt.

At least Coleman knew he had a problem. But many consumers are unaware that their gadgets could stop working sometime next year — in some cases, as soon as February 22. That’s when AT&T, a major provider of network services for devices other than phones, plans to switch off its 3G system once and for all.

“There will be hundreds of thousands of seniors and millions of homes and businesses without security and fire protection, period, on February 23rd,” said Daniel Oppenheim, president of the Medical Alert Monitoring Association.

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Oppenheim’s trade group, as well as a consortium of home security system makers and an organization of major automakers have all asked the Federal Communications Commission to delay AT&T’s 3G shutdown until December 31, 2022, the same date when Verizon will switch off its 3G service. They say this will give their industries enough time to complete the transition to 4G devices.

The nation’s third major wireless company, T-Mobile, has a much smaller share of the 3G market than AT&T and Verizon, according to wireless analyst Jason Leigh of IDC Corp. T-Mobile, which acquired rival carrier Sprint in 2020, has said that it will shut down Sprint’s 3G network on March 31, and the T-Mobile 3G network on July 1.

AT&T doesn’t want to delay its transition to 5G. The company has told the FCC that it gave wireless users ample warning of 3G’s demise back in 2019, so they’d have ample time to get ready.

But home security and medical device companies that rely on 3G say the COVID pandemic crippled their upgrade strategy, by making it far more difficult to send technicians to homes and businesses to install new devices. In addition, the ongoing global microchip shortage means they can’t obtain replacement devices fast enough.

Nobody knows exactly how many devices will be impacted by the death of 3G. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee told the FCC that there were about 6 million 3G home security systems as of mid-2021. The association estimates that about 60 percent of its wireless devices rely on 3G service from AT&T, with 40 percent provided by Verizon. But a spokesman for ADT, one of the biggest firms in the business, said that it had upgraded 1.4 million of its customers to 4G in the first nine months of 2021, with another 480,000 still pending.

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The Medical Alert Monitoring Association estimates that about 6 million people relied on 3G monitoring devices as of 2020. Since that time, said Oppenheim, member companies such as LifeStation and Medical Guardian have been scrambling to provide upgraded 4G devices to their subscribers.

Then there are Internet-connected cars. Again, it’s unclear how many such vehicles rely on 3G networks. But in a filing with the FCC, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said that about 260,000 vehicles from a single brand, the luxury carmaker Jaguar Land Rover, could be hit by the 3G shutdown. The alliance also noted that Jaguar Land Rover holds less than 1 percent of the US auto market, suggesting that the total number of cars with 3G service is probably much higher.

The impact of the 3G shutdown won’t be limited to older cars. Automakers have installed 3G systems in some vehicles as recently as the 2019 model year, long after 4G had entered the mainstream. Major carmakers say they’re reaching out to vehicle owners and warning them of the coming change. Some 3G vehicles already have compatible cellular hardware, and only need a software upgrade. Others may require installation of a new module. Tesla, for instance, charges $200 to put a 4G system in its older cars. Still other vehicles, such as Coleman’s BMW, can’t be upgraded at all.

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IDC’s Leigh says that every consumer or business owner who relies on wireless service for their cars, security alarms, or medical devices should check with the manufacturer to find out if they’re 3G-dependent, and make arrangements for an upgrade.

“It’s worth everybody just taking a pause to say, do I have these devices?” Leigh said.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.