Better call your grandparents’ flip phones now, because they may soon stop ringing.
Support for 3G, the 20-year-old wireless network standard, is ending in the US next year, when the major wireless carriers are planning to phase out service. That means many Trac phones, older Kindles, early iPads, and classic Chromebooks—any device operating on 3G—simply won’t be able to connect to cellular data networks anymore. The Wi-Fi radios on those devices will still work, but their mobile data capabilities are going kaput.
This so-called 3G sunset will come to pass at different times for different wireless providers. AT&T says it’s shutting down 3G services in February 2022. T-Mobile recently announced it would extend services to March 31 of next year, but not beyond. Verizon plans to pull the plug in December 2022. Carriers are shutting down 3G service in order to make way for the newer pieces of infrastructure that power the speedier 4G LTE and 5G networks currently expanding across the country.
Money is a major motivating factor behind the switch. LTE and 5G networks are just more logistically efficient to operate; get more users on one standard and there are essentially fewer moving parts to futz with. But there are also practical problems with continuing to service 3G customers. The connections operate on different signal frequencies. AT&T, for example, plans to reuse the spectrum that 3G currently runs on to fully enable its 5G capabilities. Without those wavelengths, the 5G signal simply won’t be as speedy. In order for the wireless future to flourish, providers say, 3G has to die.
“There’s really no backward compatibility when we look at LTE compared to 3G,” says Will Townsend, principal analyst of networking infrastructure at Moor Insights & Strategy. “That’s just because the standard was written 20 to 25 years ago. Unfortunately, when you go through some technology transitions, you don’t have backward compatibility. It’s just the nature of the way those standards and the architecture provide.”
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Chances are this won’t mean much for you and your phone. Providers like AT&T and Verizon have long been pushing customers toward devices that run on 4G LTE and 5G. If you’ve bought a phone in the past decade, it likely has at least 4G connectivity. (Verizon hasn’t even activated new phones with 3G for years.) In a perfect world, Townsend says, the transition is a good thing. The grand ambitions of the switch to 5G will mean faster speeds, better architecture, and improved security.The WIRED Guide to 5GHere's everything you'll ever want to know about the spectrum, millimeter-wave technology, and why 5G could give China an edge in the AI race.
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In reality, the 5G rollout has been anything but smooth. The process had a slow start, and even now the speediest connections aren’t being distributed evenly. A quibble over 5G standards has exacerbated international tensions. Even once they’re established, 5G networks aren’t perfect. They have security risks of their own. The signal has the potential to interfere with existing equipment, like the instruments used in airplanes. This month, the FAA issued a report outlining how some of the spectrums used in 5G connections could potentially mess with the altimeters used in aerial navigation.
For the majority of phone users, the transition will seem like more of a whimper than a bang. But there are 3G stragglers who will be left in the dark when the switch flips, many of them elderly or low income. And the devices they rely on include more than just phones.
Many devices within the internet of things—home alarm systems, wearable medical equipment, fire alarms, even ankle monitors—still operate on 3G networks. And 3G devices are used in industries from aviation to trucking.