Last 3G Mobile Phone Network Will Shut Down by End of Year

Some companies, such as T-Mobile, say they have offered their customers a free 5G replacement device. Sometimes customers see the free device incentive in the form of bill credits over several months, an installment charge for the price of the phone and a corresponding credit that encourages you to stay with a carrier at least until the phone charge and credit stop.

Companies are shutting off 3G to repurpose the finite amount of spectrum, or the airwaves they’re allotted to send wireless signals to networks. You’re not out of the woods if you get phone service from the likes of Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk and other discount providers. They piggyback on the major carriers’ networks.

“By switching off the older technology and deploying 4G or 5G on that spectrum, the experience of users will improve because the new technologies are much more efficient in how they use that spectrum,” says Ian Fogg, United Kingdom–based vice president for analysis at the mobile analytics firm Opensignal.

Back when 4G came along, carriers put 2G out to pasture — well, most of them. T-Mobile says it still has remnants of its old 2G network in place that it will take down at an undetermined date. In 3G’s heyday, the phones could have a wider service area by falling back on a 2G network wherever coverage was spotty.

Shutoff dates are an end, not a beginning, FCC says

Both AT&T, which started taking its 3G towers offline Feb. 22, and T-Mobile, which began shuttering both its own network and the Sprint network it inherited when the carriers merged in 2020, say those 3G networks are “retired.” You may find a stray signal, but it won’t be reliable.

T-Mobile’s 3G UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) network shut down July 1. T-Mobile also indicated that the former Sprint’s LTE (which stands for Long-Term Evolution and is a flavor of 4G) network would be shuttered July 1.

Verizon is in the midst of retiring its 3G network after extending an original 2020 deadline. The moves will be finished by Dec. 31, the Federal Communications Commission says. The company says it will not extend the deadline again.

“As we move closer to the shutoff 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,” Verizon vice president Mike Haberman said in a blog.

At the end of March, Verizon said less than 1 percent of its customers were still accessing its 3G network. In early July, telecom analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics in Dedham, Massachusetts, estimated that would be a few hundred thousand customers at each carrier, totaling fewer than 1 million people and down from 5 million to 10 million late last year.

Some medical, home security devices on 3G

Jettisoning 3G doesn’t affect just phones. Certain home security systems, in-car SOS services, Kindle readers, medical devices, smartwatches, tablets and other devices have also been dependent on 3G. 

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee, a group composed of representatives from home security and personal emergency response system companies, was especially concerned about the shutdown of AT&T’s 3G network because most of its devices use that carrier. Their devices are installed in homes to report break-ins, fires and medical emergencies and include emergency button and pendant services that help older adults stay in their homes.

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