What this means for cell phones, home alarms, GPS
Arizona residents are being warned that some cell phones, home alarms, medical alert devices and vehicle navigation systems could stop working if people don’t take quick steps to upgrade their gadgets.
Cell phone dead zones could also increase around rural towns, tribal areas and natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, at least in the short term.
The reason is that phone companies are shutting down 3G networks this year to switch to faster and more powerful 5G service.
Most mobile phone users will benefit, but millions of Americans who purchased phones before 2019 and other wireless devices incompatible with 5G may find themselves unable to reach 911, talk, text texting or using data services unless they upgrade.
The good news: Free upgrade options are available in many cases, so consumers should act quickly to replace their devices for free or at low cost.
When will the 3G shutdown take place?
3G service phase-out plans vary by company and are subject to change. But here’s when the major carriers plan to shut down their old networks:
- AT&T: February 22, 2022.
- T Mobile: From March 31 to July 1, 2022.
- Verizon: December 31, 2022.
If you are using another carrier, check their website or call customer service.
Who might be affected?
According to Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services at AARP, the majority of seniors have up-to-date phones that will have no problem upgrading to 5G. A recent AARP survey found that 70% of Americans over 50 had purchased some form of new technology in the past year, he said.
But those with flip phones or phones that are more than about three years old may need to be replaced, Kamber said.
Seniors may also need to upgrade wearable emergency call buttons like Life Alert and medical devices that monitor things like heart rate.
People should make a list of all the wireless devices they own and call each company to find out if a free or low-cost replacement is needed, Kamber said.
“For most people, that’s a minor inconvenience,” he said. “They have to do a check-up or an inventory of their things at home. This is an opportunity to do some digital cleaning.”
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Owners and owners of vehicles
Millions of burglar alarms and fire alarms in homes across the country need updating, industry experts say. Security companies are working hard to replace devices, but they’ve been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Owners should call their security companies to inquire about the status of their systems.
Numerous vehicles with GPS navigation, anti-theft alarms or collision warning systems will need software or hardware modifications. Companies like OnStar have implemented remote fixes in many vehicles, but vehicle owners should check with their manufacturer if anything else needs to be done.
Grand Canyon National Park has been working hard to improve cellular and internet service on the South Rim, investing in a new tower and fiber optic cable, park spokeswoman Joelle Baird said. Verizon has generally been the most reliable carrier in the area, she said, but others are now providing strong signals as well.
However, coverage remains patchy on the North Rim and canyon floor and is unlikely to be resolved by 5G, she said.
In fact, 5G could reduce coverage in forested areas and canyons, according to Nicholas Garcia, a telecommunications expert with consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. That’s because 3G signals bounce better off rock faces and terrain to ravines and remote locations, he said.
If hikers can’t get cell reception, there are emergency landlines along the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails on the South Rim, Baird said.
Rural and tribal residents
Rural and tribal areas may be more affected than urban areas by dead zones, Garcia said.
High-frequency signals don’t travel that far, he said, so “you can have the exact same number of towers and the exact same number of transmitters, and when you go from 3G to 4G (and to 5G), you will lose some coverage area.”
If rural or tribal residents notice that their signal at home is deteriorating, they can call their provider and ask what free or low-cost options are available to improve the signal. A common recommendation will be to install a signal “booster,” Garcia said.
Tribal nations have been preparing for the transition for years and at least 11, including the Gila River Indian Community and the Navajo Nation, have their own telephone carriers, said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute of the Arizona State University.
She said the tribesmen are also used to updating technology frequently to ensure they can connect to the latest communication systems. And President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan invests more than $8 billion in tribal telecommunications networks, she said.
“We’re in a big space right now,” Morris said. “We’ve known that (3G) is ending for a very long time. Tribal people are early adopters. … Hardly anyone talks about flip phones.”
What to do
Tech expert Tom Kamber says checking your devices might seem like a chore, but it won’t take long.
“My advice is to get yourself a cup of coffee or a cup of hot chocolate and put on some happy music and get started,” he said. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
He recommends making a list of all the wireless devices you own, then calling each company to ask about any necessary upgrades. Devices include cell phones, hotspots, car alarms, fire alarms, home security alarms, life alert systems, medical alert systems and more.
Most companies offer replacements for free or at minimal cost, so people shouldn’t delay upgrades for the sake of money, he said.
“The first thing you should say should be, ‘Is there a no-cost replacement option?’ “said Kamber.
And if you need additional help, you can call the National Senior Planet Technology Helpline at 888-713-3495 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time.
Learn more about seniorplanet.org/3g.
Consumer journalist Rebekah L. Sanders investigates fraud and abuse issues involving businesses, healthcare and government agencies. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders.
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