Older 3G wireless technology is being phased out this year to make room for newer, faster 5G networks. AT&T shut down its 3G network in late February, T-Mobile plans to do the same by the end of March, and Verizon will follow in December. So by the end of the year, there won't be any networks available for 3G devices to connect to — and if you have any, you likely need to buy a new device or upgrade.
The 3G standard is 20 years old, making it a dinosaur in technology terms. Finally leaving it behind will open up more spectrum for faster, more efficient networks that will give us better connectivity on the go. Most modern smartphones (typically models produced in 2015 or later) won't be affected by the shutdown at all, as they already use newer 4G and 5G networks. Fewer people use 3G devices every year, and carriers have made a big push to remind customers to upgrade to newer devices that will be supported after the shutdown.
But that doesn't mean shutting down 3G coverage will be painless. That's because a lot of devices rely on 3G to function, and you may even use some 3G devices without realizing it. We all know that our smartphones rely on cellular service, and if you purchased a tablet or smartwatch with cellular connectivity, you'll certainly be aware of the extra price you pay to keep it connected. But some gadgets are less obvious: certain connected car features, medical alert devices, home security systems, and more may find themselves without connectivity when 3G networks finally go dark.
So what will happen when 3G is shut down for good? Let's take a look at which devices are affected and what you can do to keep all of your tech in good working order.
Which Carriers Are Closing Their 3G Networks?
Though AT&T is the only carrier that's stopped supporting 3G so far, all of the other major carriers are following. T-Mobile (Sprint) is shutting down its 3G network on March 31 and Verizon will be the last to end 3G service when it shuts down its networks on December 31. Even if your cellular service is through a smaller carrier, most of them use one of the major networks. Cricket Wireless runs on AT&T, where 3G is already shut down; Boost Mobile runs on the T-Mobile (Sprint) network for 3G, so support will end soon; and Straight Talk Wireless runs on networks from all of the major carriers, depending on where you're located, so 3G support will vary.
If you use a different provider, the story is still the same: you're almost certainly connecting through another major carrier. Basically, no matter who your cellular provider is, your 3G coverage will be ending soon.
Which Devices Does the 3G Shutdown Affect?
Phones, tablets, ereaders and smartwatches
Most people's phones, tablets, smartwatches, and ereaders will be unaffected by the 3G shutdown. iPhones starting with the iPhone 5 (released 2013) have 4G and the first Android phones with 4G launched in 2010. Tablets, smartwatches, and ereaders with cellular support are in the same boat: newer models will be fine while very old models may lose cellular connectivity. For instance, only the original iPad (released 2010) was 3G only. If you have a device that's seven or more years old, cellular connectivity will probably stop working when carriers shutter their 3G networks for good. If you aren't sure whether or not your phone is still supported, contact your carrier — many are providing free or reduced cost upgrades to get customers off 3G.
Don't forget old phones that you may keep around for emergencies. Even a phone without a service contract can dial 911, and it's possible that you or someone you know has an old cellphone for this purpose. When 3G networks finally disappear, these 3G-only phones will not have any cell towers they can communicate with to make calls, so their emergency functions will be cut off.
While 3G phones and tablets will stop functioning on the cellular network when the 3G network is shut down, there's nothing wrong with the devices themselves. They can do many of their usual functions using WiFi. They won't be able to make or receive calls (except via VOIP services like Google Voice or messaging services like FaceTime), but on WiFi networks they'll be able to connect to the internet to browse the web, play videos, and nearly anything else you'd want to do with a connected device.
Connected car features could be big loss: systems that notify emergency services of crashes, contact roadside assistance, download navigation updates, or even remotely start the car may use 3G. And while the 3G shutdown mostly affects older smartphones, it can affect relatively new cars. Some automakers were using 3G systems as recently as the 2021 model year. These newer vehicles often have 4G radios, which just need a software update to work. Some connected car tech may already use newer 4G or 5G networks, or even access online features using a connected smartphone. But what exactly is affected will depend on your car's make, model, and year — if you aren't sure whether your car's features rely on 3G, you'll need to contact the manufacturer. Your car will certainly continue to be drivable, but you may lose some safety and convenience features if your car connects with 3G.
Home security systems
Home alarm systems that send alerts back to a monitoring company may also be affected, because some systems use 3G to send those messages. It's also possible your system uses a normal landline connection or connects to your home network to communicate, but some use cellular as a backup or an alternative to tying up phone lines or relying on WiFi. Many modern systems — particularly DIY smart security systems — just need an internet connection and WiFi may be an option. As with other devices, you'll want to check with the manufacturer to be sure your security system is still in touch with its monitoring service.
Be mindful of smart home security as you start transitioning devices to WiFi. Update them with any available security patches and don't use the default password, so it's more difficult for a hacker to potentially access your device.
Medical alert systems
Some emergency medical alert systems fall into the same category. Devices designed to let the elderly get quick contact with emergency services when needed or devices that contact emergency services when they detect something is wrong may rely on 3G to communicate. Just like other connected devices, you'll need to check with the manufacturer to see how it communicates — and whether you need to upgrade to a new model.
While these are common items that may be affected by the 3G shutdown, it isn't a comprehensive list. You may not realize that you rely on a 3G device, so it's important to check the status of all critical connected devices you have. Many manufacturers have support pages dedicated to 3G upgrades and searching for "product name and 3G" should provide the information you need.
How to Upgrade Your Old 3G Devices
Manufacturers are well aware that 3G is coming to an end, and most have options to help upgrade your technology to work with new networks… though it may cost some cash. For smartphones, there's really only one answer: get a new one. Cellular carriers have been offering free upgrades for 3G devices — though don't expect a free upgrade to get you anything fancy — or discounts on newer phones. Remember that you don't need a top-of-the-line smartphone to connect to modern networks: just something a bit newer. Unless you want to jump to the latest flagship smartphones, upgrading from a 3G phone won't cost an arm and a leg.
For other devices, the answer isn't quite as clear cut. Cars, in particular, are a conundrum, with different automakers taking wildly different approaches to how to keep cars connected. Your car may just need a software update, it may need a physical hardware upgrade to connect with new networks, it may need a third-party device to provide the same features that used to be built in, certain features may just not work, or everything may be just fine without any changes. The cost associated with upgrading varies: it may be free, it may cost hundreds of dollars, or it may require an ongoing subscription fee. Consumer Reports has a good list of affected cars and the manufacturers' solutions, but if your vehicle requires service, you'll need to contact your dealer.
Security systems, emergency devices, and medical devices, you'll simply have to contact your manufacturer. As with cellular carriers, many companies that want you to upgrade your 3G devices are offering deals and discounts on newer devices — but you're almost certainly going to have to spend something to keep the system working once networks shut down this year.
If you decide it's not worth the hassle — or the expense — to upgrade your device, be sure to contact your service provider to cancel the service so you aren't continuing to pay any subscription fees.
In short, 2022 is a good time to take stock of your connected devices. Find out whether they use 3G, find out whether you can update or upgrade your device, and think about whether you really need that old gadget. Handling the 3G shutdown won't be difficult, but you'll still want to dedicate some time to checking up on all of your connected devices and making sure they'll keep working after the last 3G networks go dark in December.
[Image credit: End of 3G concept via BigStockPhoto ]