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3G Sunsetting and the Digital Divide

Introduction 

Major carriers in the United States are in the process of shutting down their 3G networks. AT&T marked the beginning of the end of the 3G era that started in 2002, when it shut down its 3G network on February 22, 2022. T-Mobile and Verizon have released their schedules to shut down their 3G networks in late 2022. These events will cause some emergency service systems, safety functions, and older cellular devices across the country to stop functioning. In this blog, we will explain why 3G networks are sunsetting and where and for whom access to digital services is critical at this time. We will also explain what role policymakers can play to improve Americans’ access to the next generation of technology.  

Why Carriers are Sunsetting 3G Networks 

Third Generation networks were a vast upgrade from the previous generations. 3G technology offered increased speed, connectivity, and call quality. These improvements enabled 24/7 internet connection, mobile web browsing, mobile maps, and multimedia streaming to much of the population. Twenty years later, we are entering the fifth generation (5G) of mobile technologies. As previous generations become obsolete 5G could lead to cloud-enabled technologies such as precision farming, self-driving cars, and smart homes devices. 

Major U.S. carriers and the FCC continue moving forward with current plans to phase out of 3G “to free up spectrum and infrastructure to support new services, such as 5G.” In 2020, the FCC replaced the Mobility Fund Phase II with the $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America to prioritize funding for rural 5G network deployment. The FCC held off distributing these funds until reliable data was created to determine which areas are most in need. Due to the Digital Opportunity Data Collection established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, data collection and work on the 5G Fund are now underway. Spectrum is a vital and finite resource, so by shutting down 3G, carriers are reallocating spectrum to be used by 4G and 5G to improve network reliability and capacity. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, stated to the Senate Commerce Committee, “The transition from 3G wireless networks to more advanced 4G and 5G networks will produce significant benefits for all consumers, including faster speeds, greater capacity, better security, as well as new and innovative services.” In a recent press conference, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr stated, “I think it is very important that we get our groove back when it comes to 5G and continue to move forward.”  

U.S. carriers have announced and delayed plans to shut down 3G networks several times, but now appear poised to stick with their currently scheduled deadlines. Verizon was the first major carrier to announce a shutdown of its 3G networks in 2016, providing an initial target of the end of 2019, but delayed the date twice to December 31, 2022. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all announced shutdowns at later dates in 2019 and 2020, though circumstances forced them to push back closing dates. Opponents generally argue the shutdown comes too quickly and without enough support for those impacted. The alarm industry group petitioned for extended time to transition out 3G devices, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as cause for “significant delays in being able to replace 3G alarm signaling.” Public interest and advocacy groups collectively called on the FCC to take a more proactive role in mediating the transition. Carriers say they have provided adequate accommodation, notice, and opportunity for those still using 3G devices to upgrade and are unwilling to delay further.  

Disconnecting 3G Impact on the Digital Divide 

Though the efficacy of sunsetting 3G networks is still up for debate, the shutdown will impact various groups differently. 3G technology is incompatible with newer 4G and 5G networks. Although mobile carriers and businesses have urged consumers to upgrade their devices, some users have been slow to adopt newer 4G and 5G technology. To minimize inequalities that may arise due to sunsetting 3G, we must first understand who is impacted and why. We look at three areas of most significant concern, including cost of service and upgraded devices, supply shortages, and access and adoption issues. 

Cost 

Consumers or businesses that still use 3G compatible products must purchase new ones to avoid total loss of access, but the cost of replacing or upgrading may cause much of the delay or reluctance to change. Upgraded service fees for products compatible with newer networks may be an additional cost to the consumer. A 2021 GSMA report found that 3G devices still accounted for 4% of U.S. cellular device connections in 2020, although the number of 3G connections dropped below 25 million for the first time in 2021. Telecom analyst Roger Entner estimates hundreds of thousands of Americans still use 3G cellular devices, down from millions just a few years ago. Still, not enough information exists about the exact number of consumers impacted or their needs. 

Other industries heavily impacted by sunsetting 3G also face cost-prohibitive solutions to update their essential 3G compatible devices. Some consumer vehicles’ emergency services and infotainment systems, with features like navigation and remote locking and engine start, require a network connection. When 3G networks shut down later this year, some cars will require customers to pay for software and hardware upgrades, others will lose connected features entirely, while others are pushing over-the-air updates to enable previously inactive 4G radios for use in more recent vehicles.  

Supply 

While cost is a major factor in replacing outdated devices, supply shortages significantly impact the feasibility of upgrading products, particularly for corporations. These disruptions are compounded by factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortage issues. The transportation industry provides an excellent example of these effects. Fleet vehicles depend on electronic logging devices (ELDs) – devices that track and report various statistics. In December 2019, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began requiring most drivers to install ELDs to improve safety and ensure compliance with maintenance regulations and time on the clock. When the 3G network shuts down, some systems will no longer be compliant with federal law. Computer chip shortages also make it difficult to produce and distribute the number of ELDs required to keep truckers compliant and on the roads. Further complicating the situation, the exact number of 3G-dependent ELDs still operating remains publicly unknown. Some industry insiders estimate approximately 350,000 or more devices are still in service, but projections differ and are contested.   

Access and Adoption 

Populations in rural America may face access issues to upgraded network coverage. An Opensignal analysis indicates that 12.7% of 3G users live in an area not covered by 4G networks, suggesting another important gap in the digital divide. The report suggests a portion of the population is not covered by sufficient or advanced high-speed networks, although this study was conducted in 2019 and does not account for recent upgrades in 4G LTE services. In rural and remote areas with few cell towers, geography, weather, distance to local towers, and the number of users at one time can obstruct the quality of service. 4G or newer coverage may be extremely slow, unreliable, or non-existent for many Americans without infrastructure development to support them. 

Other limiting factors of the equipment deter some groups from adopting upgraded devices. Elderly users may be reluctant to upgrade hardware such as mobile personal emergency response systems (mPERS) due to some newer systems’ increased size and weight. Many devices that provide an additional layer of safety to elderly or disabled people in the case of a fall or other emergency still run on 3G hardware. As of November 2021, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, representing the largest companies in both the PERS and alarms industries, reported that their members still had between 4 to 5 million systems that needed upgrading.  

Efforts to Improve Access and Inclusion 

Despite concerns voiced by critics, mobile carriers intend to continue sunsetting 3G, but will implement efforts to ease the transition. Mobile carriers have informed users of 3G devices through email, mail, and text messages about the shutdown. While the FCC has remained relatively neutral and allowed carriers to shut down networks without forced delay, the FCC successfully brokered a deal between AT&T and T-Mobile to provide roaming options during the shutdown. However, the viability is still being explored 

Industry and government have programs to alleviate some cost concerns for individuals and families to upgrade cellular devices. Some carriers offer upgraded devices at a low cost or free of charge. The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (similar to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program and Lifeline program) is a new long-term, $14 billion program to help low-income households afford mobile or fixed broadband services.   

As addressed in our National Broadband Mapping Accuracy blog, decision-makers need accurate and precise information about where service is available. The FCC instated the Broadband Data Task Force in March 2021 to improve research on broadband access. It recently standardized reporting and made public 4G LTE mobile coverage maps with additional information about voice coverage, allowing voice calls and texts to be placed over 4G. The FCC can continue this progress to provide additional data on 3G access for better insights into who is impacted by the fallout from the shutdown of the network.  

Conclusion 

The next generation of mobile broadband will spearhead U.S. innovation, but we cannot overlook the needs and safety of millions of Americans who still rely on 3G connections. In highlighting groups susceptible to being left behind in the transition from 3G networks, we hope to encourage broader mobile broadband policy discussions and improve digital inclusion. Sunsetting outdated technology is not new, and it will continue as technology develops. A better understanding of the fallout after carriers turned off their 2G networks can help inform how to respond to concerns today and will help with preparation for future shutdowns of modern mobile broadband networks.  

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