Older devices will lose 911 access when 3G towers shut down

Feb. 8—With one major carrier phasing out its older third-generation mobile data networks later this month, and others planning to phase out 3G networks later this year, state emergency officials warn owners of older phones to replace their devices before emergency strikes.

Phones that use older 3G networks — as well as other devices that connect to the networks such as home security systems, medical alert devices and certain vehicles equipped with SOS communications such as OnStar — will no longer be able to call 911 once the towers are retired, according to a social media post Thursday from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

According to an AT&T spokesperson, the network used by smartphones and flip phones made into the mid 2010s will be phased out in the last week of February.

"We plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks on Feb. 22," AT&T said in a prepared statement. "This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next generation technologies and services. Customers have received and will continue to receive communications as we work with them on this transition, including direct mail, bill messaging, emails and SMS message notifications."

Among Apple-made smartphones, only iPhone 6 and newer devices will work on AT&T's network after this month. AT&T requires wireless phones on its network to support the 4G LTE wireless standard and HD Voice, a technology that uses its LTE data network to transmit voice calls.

Presently, AT&T's 3G network makes up less than 1% of the carrier's mobile data traffic, according to the carrier.

The company says it is providing customers "multiple options to make this transition easier, including some that provide a free phone." Find information at att.com/offers/network/3g-network-sunset.

Other carriers aren't far behind as they clear up wireless spectrum used by older technologies to make more room for more efficient data technologies such as 5G.

Verizon will phase out its 3G network by Dec. 31; however, the carrier hasn't activated a new 3G device since the summer of 2018 and stopped moving 3G devices from one account to another effective January 2020.

T-Mobile, which merged with Sprint, will phase out the 3G network used by Sprint March 31, the 3G network used by T-Mobile by July 1 and Sprint's 4G LTE network by the end of June.

Many discount and prepaid wireless networks as Cricket, Boost Mobile, Metro PCS and Straight Talk sublease major carrier networks, and are similarly sunsetting 3G networks.

UScellular's website only promotes their 4G LTE and 5G coverage, but a spokesperson for the carrier's Pacific Northwest region said they have "no plans in the near future" to shut down their 3G towers "where the technology is currently offered." UScellular's 3G towers operate on the CDMA technology similar to Verizon and Sprint's old 3G networks.

Those with devices out of date don't necessarily have to upgrade to a smartphone. According to carrier websites, basic flip phones are available that support the modern wireless standards. Examples for those seeking a basic flip phone include AT&T's Cinglular Flip IV ($62.99) and Verizon's Kyocera Dura XV Extreme ($240).

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management encourages locals with older devices to check with their carrier to ensure that their devices are compatible.

Many Oregonians on low or fixed incomes may qualify for free or discounted phone service through the Oregon Lifeline Program.

To qualify for the state program part of the FCC's Lifeline program, an adult must either receive supplemental nutrition benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Housing Assistance, a veterans or survivors pension or have a household income at or below 135% of federal poverty guidelines, according to the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

For information on applying for Oregon Lifeline, or to upgrade a device, see lifeline.oregon.gov.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.