AT&T becomes first top network to shut down 3G amid fears of disabling millions of home and car safety systems

 (Patrick T Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
(Patrick T Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Millions of burglar alarms, car safety systems, GPS trackers, medical monitors, and even prisoner ankle tags could stop working when American 3G mobile networks shut down this year - beginning with AT&T on Tuesday.

Internet providers such as AT&T are preparing to mothball their 3G networks, which once formed the backbone of the mobile internet, to free up those parts of the electromagnetic spectrum for faster 4G and 5G signals.

AT&T’s network is scheduled to shut down on 22 February, the first network to do so. T-Mobile’s 3G network will shut down by summer and Verizon’s in December 2022 - meaning older phones that run on 3G will likely no longer work. Some companies are offering their remaining 3G customers free 4G phones to match.

But experts have warned that millions of "internet of things" devices, including safety devices installed in a wide range of cars, will be harder to replace and could be left marooned when the sunset begins.

In some cases, customers may have to pay through the nose to upgrade their devices, or make the difficult choice between upgrading to a newer model or continuing to use their old one with key features missing.

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

"Every automaker should deliver to its customers the services they’ve been promised – without charging them extra – and lawmakers should get ahead of the game to keep this from ever happening again in the future."

The list of affected devices is long, starting with car crash alert and roadside assistance systems such as General Motors' OnStar. These devices are built into many cars and automatically contact emergency services or receive traffic updates.

Once 3G goes down, they will stop working unless they get new software updates or physical replacement, depending on the model. It's not clear how many such devices exist, but the number is almost certainly in the millions, with one estimate suggesting there were 80 million in 2019.

These phones use 3G wireless internet, and will soon be obsolete (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)
These phones use 3G wireless internet, and will soon be obsolete (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Consumer Reports, as of last month, Nissan, Toyota, Lexus and Infiniti had announced no plans for an upgrade, with some of the affected models being as recent as 2019. Other companies will keep only some features.

And while some companies are offering free software updates, others will force owners to buy a new subscription or pay for new hardware. Tesla, for instance, will charge $200 plus tax for a new modem on any Model S vehicles built before June 2015.

Next is burglar alarms, fire alarms, and home security systems. According to the Associated Press, an alarm industry lobby group has estimated that 1.5 million customers still need to upgrade their devices to make sure they stay in contact with emergency services or company systems.

The US home alarm industry and AARP, a major charity advocating for Americans over 50 years old, have both asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to delay AT&T's network shutdown until December.

"Any interruption of these services places individuals and families at risk, and AARP believes that disruptions in any telecommunications service due to technology transition are unacceptable," AARP's petition said.

The charity has also warned that medical alert bracelets and necklaces that automatically call an ambulance when they detect signs of a health crisis may also stop working, and many users might not know about the shutdown.

Makers of monitoring devices used by authorities to track child abusers, sex offenders, and drunk drivers have also warned that some of their devices will be cut off, as have makers of GPS and tracking systems for specialised industries such as haulage trucking and school buses.

Mix Telematics, which helps companies with fleets of vehicles track their movements, said in 2020 that about 80 per cent of its customers were still using 3G devices, in part because the pandemic had disrupted its upgrade programme.

Indeed, alarm makers also say they have had trouble replacing devices because customers have been reluctant to let strangers into their homes during the pandemic. The global supply chain crisis is also slowing production of new devices.

For its part, AT&T has said any delay would impede its 5G rollout, causing more dropped calls, and argues that alarm companies have had years to upgrade their customers' devices. It claims the FCC does not have the authority to stop its shutdown.

Meanwhile, Verizon has already pushed back its own shutdown twice from its original target date of 2019, while T-Mobile has delayed its shutdowns into March and July this year.