This year, U.S. wireless carriers will turn off their old 3G (third-generation wireless) networks to make room in their wireless spectrums for 4G and 5G traffic.

The first shutdown starts next week, when AT&T throws its switch on Feb. 22. T-Mobile will be up next, shutting down its 3G network by July 1 and Sprint’s 3G service (now a part of T-Mobile) by March 31. By June 30, T-Mobile will also end Sprint’s 4G LTE network. Verizon says its 3G service will go bye-bye by December 31, 2022.

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As these networks shut down older devices that rely on 3G—including cellphones, home security systems, wearable medical alert devices, vehicle SOS systems, and some smartwatches, iPads, and Kindles—will no longer connect to cellular networks.

“For the majority of phone users, the transition will seem like more of a whimper than a bang,”  Boone Ashworth, a staff writer on the WIRED Gear desk, noted in a blog post. “But there are 3G stragglers who will be left in the dark when the switch flips, many of them elderly or lower income.”

Customers of resellers (Boost, Cricket, Mint, Straight Talk, Tracfone, etc.) might also be affected, since they run on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon networks.

“Certainly, the onus has been on companies to communicate the fact that 3G is going away, and more importantly, what it means for individuals,” said Ed Baig, who reports on technology for AARP. “It is our fear that not everybody is going to get that message or understand that message. Frankly, some of the people who are still relying on 3G devices are not the most tech-savvy folks.”

It's estimated that between 5 and 10 million people, many of them older adults, still have 3G phones and will lose their wireless connections this year, Baig told Checkbook.

As the sunset date approaches for each wireless company, 3G customers could experience a degradation or complete loss of service, with limited (if any) help available from customer service centers.

Will My Phone Stop Working?

If you bought your wireless phone before 2012, “it's probably on borrowed time,” Baig said. Once your carrier’s 3G network is disabled, it won’t be able to receive or make regular calls, including emergency calls to 911.

You may be able to do a few things using a Wi-Fi connection, but you won’t be able to access websites or launch apps over a cellular connection.

This is not limited to simple flip phones. Some smartphones will also stop working, Baig told Checkbook. And it’s not always easy to find out whether yours will soon become defunct. For example, some Samsung Galaxy S20 models (G981U and G981U1) will continue working on AT&T’s network after Feb. 22, while other Galaxy models (G981F, G981N, and G981O) will not.

Some early 4G smartphones, such as the iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy 4, will no longer be able to make or receive phone calls. These phones use 4G for data services, such as sharing pictures or internet access, but need 3G to handle calls.

Each mobile carrier has posted info on which devices will be affected: AT&T, T-Mobile/Sprint, and Verizon.

If you need to buy a new phone, shop around for the best price. Check with your wireless provider for discounted models or free upgrades.

Even so, watch out for an upsell. You may not need a state-of-the-art 5G phone. When my wife—who uses her phone to call, text, and occasionally go online—needed a new phone recently, she didn’t even consider the $700 5G models. She chose a lightweight 4G model that is lightning fast, and only cost $180.

Medical Alert and Home Security Devices

Millions of home security systems and wearable medical alert devices (those “I’ve fallen and can’t get up”-type systems) use 3G cellular service to call for help. The alarm industry has been working for several years to retrofit their systems, but the pandemic slowed things down, they said, and a shortage of computer chips has limited the supply of replacement units.

“My fear is that we'll have two million systems where people are unprotected, and that something catastrophic will happen,” said Shannon Woodman, president/COO of Washington Alarm Company in Seattle, who is on the Board of The Monitoring Association. “When AT&T shuts down 3G on Feb. 22, if somebody has an emergency on Feb. 23, those systems will not notify the monitoring centers that notify the police, paramedics or fire departments for the appropriate responses.”

Even equipment that’s only two years old could need to be updated, Woodman told Checkbook. So, if you haven’t heard from your alarm service, contact them. And if they contact you to modify your system, schedule a service appointment as soon as possible.

Late last year, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require AT&T to delay its 3G shutdown until the end of the year (the same timeline Verizon set) to provide more time to upgrade installed equipment. The petition said the delay was needed to avoid the “harmful, even deadly, impact...due to the loss of central station alarm protection service.” (T-Mobile was not included in the petition because few alarm systems use its 3G network.)

The FCC has not responded to the petition. AT&T told Checkbook its 3G service will end, as planned, on Feb. 22. The company said less than one percent of its mobile data traffic now runs on 3G.

In a statement, the company wrote: “For the last three years, careful planning and coordinated work with our customers has gone into the transition to our more advanced networks. Forcing a delay would needlessly waste valuable spectrum resources and degrade network performance for millions of our customers.”

Safety Features in Millions of Cars Will Need Updating

Various models made between 2010 and 2021 use 3G connections for navigation, safety systems, and concierge services.

In some cases, a software or hardware upgrade will solve the connectivity problem. But according to Consumer Reports, some vehicles made by Chrysler, Dodge, Hyundai, Jeep, Lexus, Nissan, Ram, and Toyota “will lose their connections permanently,” once 3G is no longer available.

Consumer Reports has a list of the vehicles with CAN and SOS operate on the 3G networks.

The two basic types of safety systems that could stop working are Automatic Crash Notification (ACN) and the “SOS” button.

If your vehicle is in an accident, ACN will automatically call either a third-party or 911 and let them know the vehicle has been in an accident and transmit your GPS location. SOS calls for help when the driver pushes the emergency button, usually located on the ceiling or rearview mirror.

“What a mess,” said William Wallace, manager of safety policy at Consumer Reports. “Wireless carriers, federal regulators, and some automakers seem content to leave people out to dry, even if it means they lose access to potentially lifesaving technology.”

“While some manufacturers have announced plans to help their customers; others, such as Toyota have not,” said Alex Knizek, an automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. “Honda has a free software upgrade for customers who are paying for these features. After Feb. 22 (next week) you’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars for that upgrade.”

Ford, Mazda, and Mitsubishi will not be affected when 3G goes away. Ford and Mazda use the driver’s cell phone (it pairs via Bluetooth) for Automatic Crash Notification. Mitsubishi never used 3G.

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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for NW Newsradio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.