Feb 21, 2022 - Technology

Ending 3G service sparks fears of an "alarmaggedon"

Illustration of a mushroom cloud in the shape of the 3G symbol

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

AT&T's planned shutdown of its 3G network Tuesday has sparked fears that home security systems, medical alert monitors and a range of other devices will stop working.

Why it matters: Carriers have previously retired networks, but this transition is proving more complicated because the pandemic hindered companies that rely on 3G services from making upgrades. Plus, there are just more devices to manage.

  • AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are all planning to shut down their 3G networks this year to support new 5G services.

Driving the news: AT&T, which first announced plans to sunset its 3G network in 2019, says less than 1% of its mobile data traffic runs on that network.

  • The company has offered customers free and discounted 4G LTE phones to help them upgrade, totaling about 2 million replacements.

What to watch: AT&T says phone coverage will not be affected, but it's not just phones that use the company's 3G network.

  • 3G-connected cars — including some that are only a few years old — may require software or hardware upgrades, or could lose automatic crash notifications and other features entirely.
  • As much as 10% of all public school buses across the country will lose GPS and communications services, according to a filing from AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
  • San Francisco warned bus riders that more than 650 prediction display systems at bus shelters that rely on AT&T's 3G service will stop displaying real-time information.

Details: An alarm industry group says roughly 2 million devices powering burglar intrusion systems, fire alarms and personal emergency alerts will go offline.

  • The Alarm Industry Communications Committee said the pandemic hindered technicians' ability to get into homes to upgrade devices and source materials, and has asked the Federal Communications Commission to force AT&T to delay its plans.
  • The FCC has not acted on the group's request. Committee spokesperson John Brady told Axios the industry has taken its concerns to the White House, which intervened in a dispute between AT&T and Verizon and the airline industry over 5G signals last month.
  • "I basically told the White House that you were worried about planes falling out of the sky. How about people dying in their homes? Because that's what's going to happen," said Brady, who is also COO of Connect America, which provides personal alert devices. "They're going to think that their device works, they're going to hit the button, and it's not going to go anywhere."

What they're saying: "We are heading to alarmaggedon," Harold Feld, senior vice president of tech policy group Public Knowledge, told Axios.

  • "If you roll the dice, maybe nobody has a problem in the first day or the second day or the third day," Feld said. "But eventually someone's going to have a problem where they will need that alarm."
  • A senior Biden administration official told Axios the White House is "closely tracking carriers' 3G transition plans and shares concerns about the potential impact of these plans on the function of home security and medical alert devices."

The other side: AT&T says it has built a plug-in device to automatically connect 3G alarm service devices to its LTE network, and is using roaming options to help bridge the transition for many connected devices.

  • AT&T has argued the largest alarm company, ADT, was able to upgrade its devices and other companies have focused on new installations rather than upgrades.

Meanwhile, FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the agency worked with AT&T to ensure there are roaming agreements in place for devices that rely on its 3G network.

  • "I think we are on course for this transition to take place with limited disruption," Rosenworcel told reporters at a press conference Friday.
  • Republican commissioner Brendan Carr told reporters he worries about further delays to 5G service: "I think it is very important that we get our groove back when it comes to 5G and continue to move forward."

What's next: T-Mobile will sunset its 3G service on July 1, and Verizon plans to end its service by the end of the year.

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