3G networks are shutting down. Here's what it means for Arizona cellphones, devices

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Arizonans are being warned that some cellphones, home alarms, medical-alert devices and vehicle navigation systems may stop working if people don't take steps to modernize their gadgets soon.

Cellphone dead zones also may increase around rural towns, tribal areas and natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, at least in the near term.

The reason is phone companies are shutting down 3G networks this year to switch over to faster, 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 could find themselves unable to reach 911, talk, text or use 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 at no cost or low cost.

When will the 3G shutdown occur?

Plans to phase out 3G services vary by company and are subject to change. But here's when major carriers expect to close down their old networks:

  • AT&T: Feb. 22, 2022.

  • T-Mobile: March 31 through July 1, 2022.

  • Verizon: Dec. 31, 2022.

If you use a different carrier, check their website or call customer service.

Who could be affected?

Older adults

A majority of older adults own up-to-date phones that won't have a problem switching to 5G, according to Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services at AARP. A recent AARP survey found 70% of Americans older than 50 had purchased some form of new technology in the last year, he said.

But those who own flip phones or phones older than about three years may need to replace them, Kamber said.

Older adults also may 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 every wireless device they own and call each company to inquire whether a free or low-cost replacement is necessary, Kamber said.

"For most people, it's a minor inconvenience," he said. "They need to do a check-up or inventory for their stuff at home. It's an opportunity to do some digital housekeeping."

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Homeowners and vehicle owners

Millions of burglar alarms and fire alarms in homes across the country need to be updated, according to industry experts. Security companies are working hard to replace devices, but they have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Homeowners should call their security companies to inquire about the status of their systems.

Many vehicles with GPS navigation, theft alarms or crash alert systems will need software or hardware changes. Companies like OnStar have been implementing fixes remotely in many vehicles, but vehicle owners should check with their manufacturer if anything else needs to be done.

Outdoor enthusiasts

Grand Canyon National Park has been working hard to improve cell and internet service on the South Rim, investing in a new tower and fiber cable, said park spokesperson Joelle Baird. Verizon has typically been the most reliable carrier in the area, she said, but others are providing strong signals now too.

However, coverage remains spotty on the North Rim and the canyon bottom and likely won't be solved by 5G, she said.

In fact, 5G may decrease coverage in forested and canyon areas, according to Nicholas Garcia, a telecom expert at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. That's because 3G signals are better at bouncing off rock walls and terrain down to ravines and remote places, he said.

If hikers cannot get cell reception, there are emergency landline phones along the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails on the South Rim, Baird said.

Rural and tribal residents

Rural and tribal areas may be affected more than urban areas by dead zones, said Garcia.

Higher-frequency signals do not travel as far, he said, so "you can have the exact same number of towers and exact same number of transmitters, and when you shift from 3G to 4G (and 5G), you will lose some of the coverage area."

If rural or tribal residents notice their signal at home getting worse, 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 Navajo Nation, have their own phone carrier, said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.

She said tribal members are also used to upgrading technology frequently to ensure they can connect to the latest communication systems. And President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan is investing more than $8 billion in tribal telecommunications networks, she said.

"We’re in a great space right now," Morris said. "We've known (3G) was ending for a really long time. Tribal members are early adopters. ... Almost nobody is talking about flip phones."

What to do

Technology expert Tom Kamber says checking your devices may 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 should take no more than an hour."

He recommends making a list of every wireless device you own and then calling each company to inquire about any necessary upgrades. Devices include cellphones, hot spots, car alarms, fire alarms, home security alarms, life alert systems, medical alert systems and more.

Most companies are providing free or minimal cost replacements, so people should not delay upgrades out of money concerns, he said.

"The first thing out of your mouth should be: 'Is there a no-cost replacement option?' " Kamber said.

And if you need additional help, you can call the National Senior Planet Technology Hotline at 888-713-3495 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time.

Learn more at seniorplanet.org/3g.

Consumer reporter Rebekah L. Sanders investigates issues of fraud and abuse involving businesses, health care and government agencies. Contact her at rsanders@azcentral.com or follow her on Twitter at @RebekahLSanders.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 3G network shutdown: What it means for cellphones, home alarms, GPS