A 3G Shutdown Update – Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile & Sprint

Key Points:

  • All three carriers are progressing with their plans to sunset their 3G networks next year.
  • The spectrum used for 3G will be repurposed for 5G.
  • Customers using 3G-only devices should upgrade now.

Technology progresses, and the three major cellular carriers – AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon – plan to shut down their 3G networks next year to free up spectrum and resources to expand their 5G networks.

Since our last major news story on these upcoming 3G shutdowns, a lot has happened and we now have specific dates when each carrier plans to turn off 3G completely for consumers:

  • AT&T: February 2022
  • T-Mobile: 
    • T-Mobile’s UMTS 3G Network: July 1, 2022
    • Sprint’s CDMA 3G Network: March 31, 2022
  • Verizon: December 31, 2022

These dates are always subject to change, and each carrier has already delayed these sunset dates at least once.

But the end of 3G is very much in progress and inevitable.

Table of Contents

Why Shutdown The 3G Networks?

Why are the carriers shutting down 3G networks at all, and why can’t they keep them running?

The radio signals used for cellular communication, called spectrum, are a finite resource. A piece of spectrum that is used for 3G can’t also be used for LTE or 5G. And because LTE and 5G are so much more efficient and faster with a given piece of spectrum, moving that spectrum to newer technologies allows the carriers to provide better and faster service.

And, for the carriers, it’s expensive to support the infrastructure for three different networks on thousands of cellular towers and sites around the country.

Current Status & Recent Developments

iPhone 4GLTE Toggle
AT&T has pushed out an update eliminating the ability for iOS devices to force “4G” mode – which actually uses AT&T’s 3G HSPA+ network instead of the 4G/LTE network.

Shutting down the 3G networks is a complicated multistep process, and it requires transitioning existing customers using 3G devices to 4G/LTE or 5G.

Once the 3G networks shut down, then devices that depend on the 3G network will no longer work.

The carriers are already restricting 3G activations and notifying customers who need to upgrade. For most consumers, this requires getting a new phone and the carriers are all offering incentives to upgrade, including offering free phones.

There are actually some 4G phones that need to be upgraded as well because many early 4G phones relied on the 3G network for voice calls instead of VoLTE (Voice Over LTE). Once the 3G networks retire, those early LTE-era phones will no longer be able to make voice calls.

Here are some of the latest developments we’ve been tracking:

  • AT&T rolled out a carrier update that takes away the ability for AT&T iPhones to manually select AT&T’s 3G/HSPA+ network – which AT&T long-ago confusingly branded as “4G” to differentiate from earlier 3G technologies.
  • T-Mobile delayed the shutdown of Sprint’s 3G/CDMA network from January 1, 2022, to March 31, 2022 – under pressure from budget reseller Boost Mobile which still has many customers with phones relying on this spectrum.
  • AT&T is getting pressure from some industries and partners to delay its 3G shutdown since 3G data is still used for some critical tasks, like custody alternative programs using electronic monitoring (aka “ankle bracelets”). 

Plus, the effects of Covid and supply-chain disruptions continue to complicate the transition efforts due to a shortage of parts.

Summary – It’s Time To Upgrade!

5G symbol in front of a cellular tower
3G needs to be retired to make way for newer, better, faster 5G networks

While it’s possible there will be additional delays, the 3G networks for all the major carriers are very likely shutting down next year, with AT&T scheduled to be the first in February 2022 – only four months away!

If you have any 3G devices or older 4G phones in your connectivity arsenal – it is time to upgrade!  For the vast majority of consumers, there is no reason to stick with a 3G device, or with a 4G phone that is tied to 3G for voice service.

All the phones and hotspots currently sold by the three major carriers today are fully LTE compatible and support VoLTE – even the least expensive offerings.

Those who are already on current LTE or 5G tech won’t notice when 3G goes away, but eventually, the 3G sunset will provide benefits in terms of more capacity and performance for LTE and 5G.

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