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3G upgrade could affect vulnerable populations

by The Washington Post | November 21, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

The wireless networks that underpin an assortment of devices, including life-alert alarms, older cellphones and tablets, are about to shut down, an action that consumer advocates say will leave some of society's most vulnerable people without critical communications tools.

When they were rolled out nearly two decades ago, 3G wireless networks served as the bedrock of an explosion in cellphones and connected devices. Many devices have moved to 4G networks and newer phones are now moving onto 5G.

But a motley assortment still relies on the more rudimentary 3G service -- ranging from location sensors that track school buses to connected breathalyzers police use to monitor convicted drunken drivers -- and consumer advocates are urging the Federal Communications Commission to slow the change, which is set to start in February.

Older and low-income Americans are more likely to be affected by the shift, these advocates say. If they don't upgrade in time, their cellphones and life-alert devices won't be able to call 911 or other emergency services, government regulators warn.

"We need to make sure that we have the timelines that are necessary to make sure we can get everyone upgraded or switched off to new technologies so that nobody does get inadvertently left behind," said Ryan Johnston, policy counsel of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit organization that works with cities, town and villages on internet access and adoption.

A study from the market analysis firm OpenSignal said that as of 2018, nearly 20% of Americans were still on 3G networks.

Companies have long planned to phase out 3G networks to free up valuable resources for 5G networks, which carriers say will bring faster speeds and allow more mobile devices to connect than ever before. But the transition has been complicated by the pandemic, as safety concerns hampered outreach, especially to older Americans, and snarled supply chains globally, adding to a chip shortage that makes it more difficult to replace outdated devices.

Phone carriers have resisted slowing the transition, arguing that they have warned for years that the transition is coming and that they've taken extensive steps to ensure that their customers aren't disconnected.

AT&T, which plans to shutter its 3G network in February, says it has reached out to affected customers and provided them with discounted or in some instances free cellphone upgrades. Other networks, including T-Mobile, have delayed their shutdowns until slightly later to accommodate people who still haven't upgraded: T-Mobile will shut down Sprint's 3G network on March 31; Verizon has said it will shut down its network on Dec. 31, 2022.

The transition has been a particular challenge during the pandemic for the alarm industry, because companies often rely on in-home visits to install upgraded systems.

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee, an industry group representing a wide range of alarm companies and personal emergency response systems, says its member companies still have between 4 million and 5 million systems to upgrade.


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