Over the last few months, there have been a lot of articles about the “end” of 3G. The shutdown, the sunset, the point at which certain devices are rendered inoperable, or, what Wired terms the “3G-pocalypse.”
For the everyday wireless network user in a country such as the United States, nothing will change. There have been several standards (or Generations) of wireless technology that have been released since 3G in 2002. As a result, most wireless carriers have been exclusively activating devices that use newer standards for much of the last decade.
Most cellular devices now use 4G/LTE and coverage is rapidly increasing for 5G, the newest, fastest technology. There are, however, special considerations for IoT users and others still relying on the old standard. Thankfully, The People’s Network can help alleviate many of the problems.
Why Sunset 3G?
All of the major US-based carriers, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are planning on disabling their 3G networks in 2022. By the time you read this, some networks might already have been sunset, as AT&T and T-Mobile both expressed an intention to complete this phase-out early in 2022.
In many countries around the world, private companies control the telecommunications infrastructure, and ultimately exercise authority over the commercial hardware that underpins our communication networks..
You may ask, why would a phone company perform the equivalent of physically cutting the phone lines? Better coverage must mean better business.
In any area where there is 3G coverage, 4G/LTE or 5G coverage is preferred. Wanting to use 3G when 5G is available is comparable to taking a dirt road when you could be traveling on the highway. As coverage improved for more modern standards, 3G has become more and more of a distant memory.
From the carriers’ perspective, there are two main motivators.. Cost savings will be enjoyed by decommissioning any physical hardware still used for 3G. Also, there can be some benefits to phasing out some old devices that are responsible for disproportionately high rates of customer support inquiries. The other reason is that the wireless spectrum used by 3G is in no way backward compatible. By re-using this spectrum for 5G, all devices using the 5G network benefit.
Are There Disadvantages to Shutting Down 3G?
Those with old phones or 3G IoT devices will be disappointed to learn that their gadgets simply no longer work. After 3G is decommissioned, devices that cannot connect to newer networks or which do not have a use case for Bluetooth or Wifi will be rendered useless.
As far as cell phones go, the most likely groups to be affected are the elderly, who typically use phones purchased with help from younger relatives, and those who are lower income and purposefully use inexpensive, older phones. Some carriers have stated that less than 1% of devices are still connecting to 3G, but that could mean that there are over a million people still in the United States still using the network.
Another thing to consider is that while 4G and 5G network coverage is quite good, there are still parts of the United States where phones will connect to 3G. There are many rural areas, such as in the midwestern United States, where these networks are still prevalent. It is hard to determine the impact but it is plausible to consider some outlying areas may become dead zones.
The other disadvantage of 3G shutting down is for connected devices. Before the Internet of Things was widely known as the Internet of Things, there were plenty of simple fit-for-purpose devices deployed. Trackers with GPS functionality such as ankle monitors and elderly medical alert systems, equipment used by long-haul truckers, even home security systems all used 3G. These industries move a bit more slowly and 3G has fit the needs just fine, which is why many everyday items that we may take for granted still use 3G.
These reasons all contributed to the FCC delaying the phase-out of 3G until 2022.
How The People’s Network Can Help After 3G is Sunset
The 3G sunset will hurt those who run IoT solutions on the network. Rather than buying new phones, an obvious solution, solutions architects may have to get more creative. A 3G transceiver may be integrated in a device that can still perform other functions, such as collecting sensory data, just fine. After 3G is sunset, that entire device may have to be replaced. New solutions may be prohibitively expensive, either from a hardware cost or the cost to use the network. Migrating to one of these networks can leave one exposed to the same issue–that commercial telecom networks can be sunset or have opaque pricing.
Thankfully, The People’s Network, by Helium, can alleviate some of these problems.
First, coverage is dense, distributed, and transparent. No one single person or entity controls the network. It is built with individual hotspots owned by everyday people.
Next, the governance of the network and pricing is straightforward. When you’re talking about deploying IoT solutions on the Helium network, $HNT is exchanged for data credits. There are no contracts or hidden fees. The network protocol, LoRaWAN, is even open source. LoRa is the best network for IoT projects, since it is cheap, long range, and draws comparatively low amounts of power.
While this change comes in the name of progress, it is unprecedented in the era of smartphones and data. Public reaction to 3G sunsetting has been muted but the truth is that this event will take some people by surprise, and it does expose some issues with privately-owned communication networks even though they use standard protocols.
For those with IoT deployments that may be affected, switching to The People’s Network can be a robust low-cost long-term solution. The Helium team has even provided a contact form to help advise those who are being forced to switch from 3G.