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3G shutdown paves the way for 5G, but there’s a catch


Carriers are ushering in the end of perhaps the most widely used technology of the past 20 years, which presents some unforeseen challenges for businesses.

At the beginning of each year, technology industry leaders prognosticate about incredible things that new and emerging technologies are on the cusp of accomplishing. The reason for this forward-looking optimism is simple: The accelerating pace of innovation in the past 20 years has given us a constant stream of life-changing technologies that are always better, more powerful, and faster than the technology they’re replacing.

However, in 2022, some of the most noteworthy technology-driven transformations will be rooted in the past, rather than the future. On Feb. 22, AT&T became the first major carrier to begin to sunset its 3G network – ushering in the end of perhaps the most widely used technology of the past 20 years, and also presenting some unforeseen challenges for businesses and consumers alike.

That hungry beast called 5G is the catalyst for this shutdown. Network resources and spectrum bandwidth occupied by 3G will be needed by the major carriers to fully support the 5G network.

Given the hype around 5G and all the possibilities its adoption will bring, it’s easy to forget just how transformational 3G was when it arrived on the scene in the first decade of this century. Let’s get in our DeLorean and fly back in time.

Game-changing rollout

The adoption of 3G formed the foundation that our current technology ecosystem is built on: It allowed for “high-speed” mobile Internet and wireless applications, powering the smartphone revolution. Once the things of science fiction, 3G brought high-definition gaming and video streaming and even live TV to mobile apps. Tech titans including Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber, Netflix, and Twitter owe many of their successes in the past decade to the capabilities that 3G enabled.

But 3G’s historic run is coming to an end. As AT&T sunsets their 3G network beginning on Feb. 22, the remaining carriers are all scheduled to follow suit this year, including Sprint ending support on March 31, followed by T-Mobile on July 1 and Verizon on Dec. 31.  Shutting down a technology as ubiquitous as 3G is not as simple as it seems, even though anyone who has purchased a smartphone in the last several years may have assumed it was already a thing of the past.

The shutdown of 3G networks won’t just impact older smartphones. 3G networks still underpin essential, sometimes lifesaving technology.  GPS systems embedded in many cars, emergency call services, and many newer devices still rely on 3G to function, and if 3G service ends without the proper patches and upgrades, those devices and technologies will be blocked from the network for all services.

Some industries are racing to prepare for the end of 3G networks. The alarm industry, for instance, still relies on 3G to transmit signals for more than 6 million alarm systems in homes and businesses. In cars, it’s not only GPS systems that may be affected – some vehicles built as recently as 2021 still use 3G modems that will need to be updated.  

In fact, despite its imminent swan song, 3G still has a massive overall footprint.  As of mid-2019, there were 80 million active 3G devices in use across North America, most of which being IoT devices operating on the networks of national carriers. It’s imperative that businesses are aware of how the sunsetting of 3G will impact their wireless inventory – and subsequently their businesses – so they can take the proper steps with their vendors to update their wireless devices and services. Preparing for the end of 3G can be as simple as upgrading to newer devices or implementing a handset swap or upgrade, but it may also involve patching or upgrading fixed wireless solutions from several manufacturers prior to the 3G deadlines. It’s important to note that even though your devices may not utilize 3G for content transmission, they may use it to authenticate with the carrier network or simply have a radio that speaks to 3G network, both pose a possible bad outcome for your devices.

Phasing out POTS

While more well known, 3G isn’t the only essential, landmark technology that the big carriers will be closing down this year. The FCC has mandated the phasing out of older copper wire “Plain Old Telephone Service” – or POTS – lines by Aug. 2 of this year. POTS is an analog voice transmission phone system that has been in use across the world for decades, after evolving from the original POTS system that was invented in the 1880’s.

The phasing out of POTS means that all businesses that haven’t done so already will need to transition their traditional analog phone lines to a digital platform. While many businesses upgraded long ago, companies across key industries such as healthcare, retail and security still need to make the leap by the Aug. 2 deadline. Businesses that don’t upgrade in time can find themselves at a difficult crossroads, facing a costly rip-and-replace process to update their devices and infrastructure or alternatively, over-spending to cover ever-rising fees to maintain their current POTS infrastructure.

Taken together, 2022 will see the end of two of the most world-changing technologies the telecom industry has ever produced, with POTS – the original service underpinning our global telecommunications systems – and 3G – the technology that gave rise to the current Digital Era – both being phased out at the same time.

Transitioning away from such essential technology can be hard and complicated, with all kinds of unforeseen problems arising. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these technologies are going away because the successors they’ve spawned, including 4G, 5G, fiber, cellular, and VOIP networks, offer such incredible capabilities that they’ve utterly transformed productivity and the key capabilities of businesses across virtually every industry.

So, while we may not think of these older systems as relevant in 2022, they in fact are – on the risk side.  Phasing them out reinforces the rapid pace of innovation – particularly in IT communications –and preparing for their exit is key to unlocking the full potential of 5G and a brave new world.

This article was originally featured on CIO.

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