National wireless providers shutting down 3G network: What you need to know

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Nationwide wireless providers AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are working to shut down their 3G networks to free up radio frequencies for the 4G and 5G networks.

More than 99% of Americans have access to three or more 4G/LTE networks, and 5G networks are beginning to come online for more communities every day, according to CTIA, formerly known as the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

In simple terms, the 4G and 5G networks provide faster internet speeds for devices. The change, however, may affect some residents’ services, such as home alarms, court-ordered monitoring and 911 calls. Local authorities are urging residents to make sure they are up to date on their service.

“My understanding is that most companies have been sending out advisories to prompt their customers to upgrade where they need to, and hopefully most people have responded,” Lakewood police Capt. William Albrecht said. “If they haven’t, I’m hopeful that customers will realize shortly after the shutdown that their devices are obsolete, and [they] will need to upgrade.”

The Federal Communication Commission is urging people who still have 3G devices to consult with their mobile providers about the shutdown and whether their phones or other devices will be affected.

AT&T already closed its 3G network in February, spokeswoman Lesley Roberts Merritt said. T-Mobile plans to shut down its 3G network by July. Verizon will do so Dec. 31, Verizon spokesman Steve Van Dinter said.

“Wireless providers have successfully transitioned customers from old to new generations before, and the same consumer-focused transition is happening right now,” CTIA, the cellular association, said in a statement. “3G customers should reach out to their providers to find out more information and discuss options.”

The cellular association has stressed that the transition began long ago.

“Providers began phasing out 3G devices years ago with the advent of 4G and smartphones, which became the dominant device type in the marketplace,” the association said.

There have been very few 2G and 3G phones sold in recent years, but most providers stopped activating these phones last year, the cellular association said. Most 2G devices are not phones, but rather, alarm systems and other types of equipment.

And for the last three years, AT&T worked with its business customers across all industries to help upgrade their 3G devices, Roberts Merritt said. Van Dinter said fewer than 1% of Verizon’s customers have a 3G device, like AT&T.

Verizon’s vice president, Mike Haberman, said in a statement that customers who still have a 3G device will continue to be “strongly encouraged” to make a change.

“As we move closer to the shut-off date, customers still accessing the 3G network may experience a degradation or complete loss of service, and our service centers will only be able to offer extremely limited troubleshooting help on these older devices,” he said.

The effect on home alarms, medical devices

Authorities say that many older cellphones will be unable to make or receive calls and texts. And that can include 911 calls and court-ordered monitoring devices.

Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for Cuyahoga County, said the sheriff’s department is aware of the 3G shutdown and has been working to make sure that monitors used to track suspects on house arrest are current.

“We’re aware of the 4G/5G changeover and the upgrades that are going on countrywide,” she said. “[The vendor] is aware of the change. They expect no trouble. We are in good shape.”

Westlake police Capt. Gerald Vogel advises residents to make sure they are up-to-date on their phones and home alarms.

“We would like to be notified of break-ins as quickly as possible, of course, so if any alarm systems – home or business – rely on the networks that are changing, we hope that they have contingency plans in place to avoid disruptions in service,” he said.

The 3G shutdown will not only disrupt cellphones, but it is likely to affect other issues. Those include medical devices such as the Life Alert necklaces and bracelets. Other items that can be impacted are tablets, smartwatches and vehicle emergency notifications that tell drivers that they are out of gas, have a dead battery or have low tire pressure.

The good news of transitioning out of 3G and into 4G/5G networks is that police and local officials will have greater capabilities to keep customers safe, the wireless companies said.

Law enforcement agencies in Northeast Ohio don’t have direct contact with the transition to 4G/5G networks. That’s because they use outside vendors when it comes to things such as home alarm systems.

Dan Surmitis of North Coast Security Inc. in Westlake said this transition has been in the process for a long time, and the industry has dealt with this kind of transition before.

“We are currently in the process of upgrading the few remaining clients who will be affected, but it has not been without its challenges,” he said.

Since the switchover is in the private sector, there is little for police departments to do other than trust that the vendors will take care of customers and assist them with updating equipment and devices.

Rocky River police Chief George Lichman said his department responds to alarm calls that it is alerted to by third-party alarm services, such as ADT and local security businesses such as Sievers Security in Cleveland and North Coast Security Inc. in Westlake.

“Businesses are more likely to have a cellular system or cellular backup system, and they will need to ensure they get the upgrade before service is discontinued,” Lichman said. “Since all of these systems are subscription-based and under contract so the service providers will make sure hardware is upgraded in order to continue their contract with the home or business owner.” and The Plain Dealer reached out to ADT and Sievers for comment on the effects of the 3G shutdown.