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Cell phone services ending 3G networks begins next month

Mobile phone customers who haven’t upgraded their phones recently might have to do so because major carriers are retiring their 3G networks this year to accommodate the more advanced 5G networks.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, state police and the Federal Communications Commission are urging people whose mobile phones are more than a few years old to contact their service providers to find out if their phones will continue to work after the shutdown and to upgrade if they don’t.

AT&T will finish shutting down its 3G network in February, and Verizon will finish by the end of the year, according to the FCC.

T-Mobile announced that it will finish shutting down Sprint's 3G CDMA network by March 31, and Sprint's 4G LTE network by June 30. It also announced it will shut down T-Mobile's 3G UMTS network by July 1, but has not yet announced a shutdown date for its 2G network, according to the FCC.

Most 3G users will be notified

Most 3G users will be directly notified by their carriers if the network retirement affects them, according to PEMA.

However, users of older phones that only are used for calling 911 may not receive the notification if they do not have active service with a carrier. Organizations that serve homelessness people or domestic violence survivors sometimes provide clients with older phones without a service plan for making emergency calls, according to PEMA.

At-risk county residents who receive 911-only phones from organizations such as the Victim Outreach Intervention Center should contact those organizations to find out if those phones will continue to work and ask about upgrading, said Steve Bicehouse, Butler County Emergency Services director.

“I recommend that people who have the ability to upgrade. At-risk people with 3G only should contact the entity for an upgrade,” he said.

The Butler County Area Agency on Aging doesn’t distribute phones to low-income seniors, but connects those who inquire about them to SafeLink Wireless. SafeLink provides old flip phones through its public benefit program, said Brittany Gilfillan, of the Area Agency on Aging.

SafeLink will notify seniors whose phones won’t function after the 3G networks are retired, and provide them with newer phones, Gilfillan said.

Most seniors will not be affected by the change in networks, she said.

“Most of our seniors are tech-savvy. I think COVID pushed them to do that. I don’t see it impacting a ton of people,” Gilfillan said. “Many seniors on 3G still have landlines, and many seniors don't travel, so they don’t use them every day as a regular phone.”

SafeLink, which is owned by Tracfone, provides free phones or subsidized phone service to people who qualify for food stamps or medical assistance, she said.

Some 4G phones may be affected

Certain older 4G mobile phones that do not support Voice over LTE will be affected by the shutdown, the FCC said.

The FCC has two programs that can help income-eligible people. The Lifeline program provides discounts for phone and internet services. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program provides a temporary discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service for eligible households during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other devices — such as some medical devices, tablets, smart watches, vehicle SOS services and home security systems — that use 3G networks can be affected by the shutdown, the FCC said.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and state police also are urging residents with older cell phones to prepare for the phase out of 3G cellular networks and service.

“The best plan of action is to contact your service provider to determine if your devices are compliant. It’s important to plan now, so you don’t lose connectivity,” said PEMA Deputy for 911 Jeff Boyle.

“If your mobile phone is more than a few years old, you may need to upgrade your device before your provider shuts down its 3G network and you lose service – including the ability to call 911,” said Lt. Adam Reed, state police communications office director. “During an emergency, every minute counts whether you need police, fire or medical assistance.”