R.I.P., 3G
Jan 20, 2022

R.I.P., 3G

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The upgrade to 3G technology allowed people to more easily browse the internet and use GPS.

Your browsing speeds may have sped up significantly as mobile carriers rolled out more of their 5G service this week with some delays around certain airports.

In order to make room for that expansion, carriers are shutting down their 3G networks.

AT&T plans to discontinue its 3G network by Feb. 22, T-Mobile by July 1, and Verizon by the end of the year. Commercial 3G networks first started popping up in the early 2000s and were about thirty times faster than their 2G predecessors.

Joanna Stern, senior personal technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal, wrote about the coming shutdown, and what a turning point 3G was for smartphone use. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Joanna Stern: 3G was a huge milestone, and it really marked the smartphone revolution. And that’s because we finally got broadband-like connectivity on our phones. And those faster speeds unlocked lots of apps, that network had a huge impact on getting us things faster. It also had a big impact on location services and GPS, and so we got things like Uber and Seamless and things that could just instantly know where we were going and where we wanted to go.

Kimberly Adams: I think it might be hard for folks who are a bit younger to recognize how big of a shift that was, because I remember being able to suddenly start looking at videos on your phone in a meaningful way. How do you explain to people sort of what that moment was like?

Joanna Stern wears a black top as she stands in front of a grey background for her headshot.
Joanna Stern. (Courtesy photo)

Stern: It’s so true. I mean, some of us remember just having these older phones — not the touchscreen kind — but with these keyboards, and we’d watch the web browser sort of just inch along. In my column, I said it was sort of like being in the midday DMV line, where you just inch, inch, and you’re like, “I’m never going to get there.” This webpage is never going to fully load. And now we hit “Enter” and that web page is just there, in an instant. 3G made that shift for us where we would feel more comfortable clicking on links in an email or clicking on links in a web browser, because we didn’t fear that this was going to take another 50 seconds to three minutes.

Adams: So who in particular is going to be affected by the end of 3G?

Stern: Well, the carriers say that right now, people with phones that depend on 3G is pretty slim to none. AT&T specifically says only 1% of its customers have devices that depend on 3G. The other carriers say about the same. But there are some people, so if you do have a [3G-dependent] phone, the carriers have been telling people via text message and email and snail mail that you need a new phone to basically do any sort of communication. Some other things that have been affected are things you might not actually think of, one is actually connected cars. After I published this column, I heard from so many readers saying, “Why didn’t you mention my Audi or my Volvo, or my Honda? Because I’ve gotten notifications from those companies saying that 3G is going to be shut off, and so I need to either go in for an upgrade, or I won’t have services in my car that connect to 3G.”

Adams: What other tech that you might not expect is affected by the end of 3G?

Stern: Dog collars. If you’ve had a smart dog collar, I don’t know if you have one of those?

Adams: (laughs) I don’t.

Stern: (laughs) So some companies have made these smart dog collars. I have actually written columns about them before. And they track your dog, right? So in case you lose your dog, and you have this collar on him, then you can pinpoint them using GPS. Well, a lot of those have used AT&T’s network to do that and have used 3G on AT&T’s network. So they have been phasing those out and upgrading them, and most of these companies are also offering really good trade-in.

Adams: You mentioned that it’s a very small sliver of people who are still using 3G phones, but I imagine this is going to have an outsized impact on people who are lower income, or who maybe can’t afford to update their phones all the time.

A screenshot of a text message on an older iPhone says, "Cricket Free Msg: Get a new iPhone for $0 before yours stops working! Our 3G network is shutting down, which means your current phone won't work!"
In a screenshot of a text message on an older iPhone, Cricket notifies Joanna Stern that she needs to exchange the device because of the 3G network shutdown. (Courtesy Stern)

Stern: That’s definitely true. And the carriers that I spoke with said they’re focused on that. So they’re making sure that the phones themselves that they have to swap in for are either free or very, very affordable. I actually tested this out. I put in a SIM card in my old iPhone 3G, and an old iPhone 4. Now these are phones that are more than 10 years old. And I used Cricket Wireless on one of them. And Cricket instantly messaged me telling me: This phone is going to stop working. I will read from the text message, it says: “Get a new iPhone for $0 before your stops working! Our 3G network is shutting down, which means your current phone won’t work!” And they actually had two exclamation points in that text message. So they’re trying to make it either free or very affordable to get a new phone.

Adams: In your article, you really laid out just how much of a shift in tech and culture 3G was. How does the rollout of 5G compare?

Stern: It’s similar in the sense that we don’t know. Right? We didn’t know when the 3G networks were lit up, what innovation would come from them. Certainly, the former executives I spoke to about 3G knew there was something big that would happen, but they couldn’t quite pinpoint what the Uber app was going to be or that Instagram was going to happen. We’re hearing the same about 5G. We don’t know if it is going to really unlock more capabilities for self-driving cars or if it’s for augmented reality. So what comes after — what does 5G push after smartphones? — is the big question.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Joanna has a fun video where she walks through her experience trying to use her old phones on the 3G network to do some of the tasks we don’t think twice about today. It’s quite the walk down memory lane.

And Consumer Reports has more information on which cars will lose features like automatic crash notification to emergency services because of the 3G shutdown, and what to do if your vehicle is affected. You may need to act soon. According to their reporting, some Honda owners, for example, only have until Feb. 22 to download a free software update. After that, it could cost $900 to upgrade.

Vending Times has a story about, as you might be able to guess, the vending machines that may also have some trouble once the 3G networks are no more.

And, in a funny coincidence, when I called my grandpa the other day to wish him a happy 94th birthday, he excitedly told me how his phone company just sent him a brand new cell phone for free to replace the one he’s had since he can’t remember when.

“Something about the network,” he said.

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