“I kept putting off [upgrading] since it was not my primary phone,” said Hommell, who used the iPhone as a work device for his Gulfport, Mississippi, law firm. “Eventually, a letter came saying they would be sending me a phone in a few weeks. I just waited and boom, there it is on my doorstep.”
“For nearly two years, we have been communicating with consumers via direct mail, emails and text messages and we will continue to do so as we help them navigate this transition,” AT&T told CNN Business in a statement. “This includes providing free replacement phones to a substantial majority of customers.” AT&T said the replacement devices tend to be 4G versions of smartphones that run on the same operating system the users had previously been using.
The shift will impact people still using 3G Kindles, 3G flip phones, the iPhone 5 and older models, various Android phones and some wearable devices. It will also affect home alarm systems and medical devices such as fall detectors. Some in-car crash notification and roadside assistance systems like OnStar will also need to be updated or replaced.
Even with these efforts, there’s a chance some customers (and devices) get left behind.
“There is always a risk of people losing service or devices being disconnected from the network,” said Dimitris Mavrakis, senior director at market research firm ABI Research. “Mobile operators make significant attempts to minimize this, but there will always be devices that are left out.”
Who’s at risk of losing service?
According to Roger Entner, analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, these combined estimates equate to about 3 million people. He suspects the holdouts “almost never use [their 3G device] and hence don’t get caught by the alerts when they make or receive a call.”
Those using a 3G phone have likely gotten texts, emails and physical mail from their wireless carriers over the past year urging them to upgrade. (If you’re not sure which network your phone is on, open Settings, tap Network and Internet, and then select Mobile Network on Android devices. On iOS, choose Settings, Cellular and then pick Cellular Data Options.)
Determining whether other household devices run on 3G may be a bit more complicated, however.
“These connected devices are at a greater risk of being disconnected from the network but individual vendors do spend time to alert their users that their 3G systems will be decommissioned shortly,” Mavrakis said.
For mobile devices, however, there are some workarounds for people who don’t want to get rid of their 3G devices all together. In theory, it will be possible to access a web browser via Wi-Fi or make calls over wireless on a 3G phone if the user has an app enabling voice-over-internet protocol, such as Facebook Messenger. Similarly, people with a 3G e-reader will still be able to download new books on the device via Wi-Fi.
Mobile carriers are mostly not upcharging their customers to switch from 3G to 4G plans, likely to keep them from wandering off their data plans.
Will 4G be the next to go?
This is not the first time a network has been phased out nor will it be the last. The effort to shut down 3G is primarily to re-use the spectrum for 4G and 5G, which are newer standards, better technologies and more efficient than 3G. The same thing happened with 2G, which AT&T and Verizon shut down around the end of 2017; T-Mobile plans to shut its 2G network in December.
As 5G gains traction, and possibly 6G after that, 4G may be the next to get phased out.
As for whether another new smartphone might one day magically appear on his doorstep to replace the 4G iPhone he just received, Hommell said, “We can all hope for that.”