All of the major cellphone carriers — AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile — are planning to shut-down their older 3G networks this year. Millions of people in the United States who use 3G phones and other 3G devices will be unable to text, make calls, or even reach 911. If you are currently relying on a 3G network for your devices – phones, home security systems, vehicle navigation services, personal medical alert devices, or some e-readers – you will be affected by this change.

As documented, Americans have steadily gained access to the Internet, relying heavily on their smartphones to connect. Increased connectivity is a good thing, but many recent smartphone adopters rely exclusively on this now-indispensable device as an onramp. Owning a second mobile device or a home computer is not an option for these “smartphone-dependents.” Without access to other options for connectivity, they are the users who will experience the biggest challenge imposed by the loss of 3G.

Replacing your device with a more recent model that’s compatible with 4G and 5G networks is the recommended solution. To encourage this transition, some service providers are offering substantial discounts and/or trade-in options on new smartphones. However, even discounted phones may be financially out-of-reach for many users. Upgrading devices will be especially difficult for marginalized or low-income users and the elderly. Rural and pre-paid mobile customers will feel the impact of this change as well. As the data show, these are often the user groups who lack access to any other device or method of connectivity, and so they rely solely on their phones.

Mobile-only users need their smartphones not only to stream videos, connect with friends, and read the news, but also to conduct personal business, apply for jobs, or engage in tasks more easily accomplished on a larger screen. Many visitors to the Law Library, particularly self-represented litigants, even use their phones for legal work. These users often log on to the Harris County wi-fi network for Internet access, not only (in some cases) to conserve their limited, prepaid data, but also because no other connectivity options are available to them. A significant portion of these mobile-only users lack access to a reliable broadband connection, particularly in their homes. Although it is treated as a separate problem by those working toward a remedy, the unmet need of reliable access to a high-speed network is essentially inseparable from the anticipated effects of the 3G sunset on low-income Americans. This is a key point in understanding how disparities in access to technology hinder the ability of low-income user groups to fully engage with the world of information online.

The FCC’s Lifeline program, a federal aid initiative, administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, provides discounts on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers. The program has given many Americans access and connectivity since 1985. In 2016, the FCC adopted the Lifeline Modernization Order, a comprehensive reform and modernization plan that expanded the program’s benefits for the Internet age. The Order specifies requirements for mobile broadband service, including Minimum Service Standards. Link to a chart of the minimum standards, and you will see that mobile broadband must provide connectivity speed of at least 3G.  Without upgrading the requirements to at least 4G connectivity, many who currently benefit from the Lifeline program will effectively no longer have access to a mobile broadband connection on their phones.

As an alternative to the Lifeline program and, as an option for those who don’t otherwise qualify to receive Lifeline services, there are additional resources available. Visit TexasLawHelp.org’s Internet Access page to learn about the many broadband services and subsidies available through the government, nonprofit organizations, and private internet service providers. Also, visit the FCC online for information about the Affordable Connectivity Program. This FAQ will answer your questions about program specifics, eligibility requirements, and the application process.

Please note that three states (California, Oregon, and Texas) do not participate in the National Lifeline Accountability Database. In Texas, qualifying applicants enroll through the Public Utility Commission website.

Sunset Dates for Major Carriers

  • Sprint 3G: Jan. 1, 2022

  • AT&T: February 22, 2022

  • Sprint LTE: June 30, 2022

  • Verizon 3G: December 31, 2022

  • T-Mobile 2G and 3G: Not yet announced.

Source: 3G networks are shutting down next year. Here’s what you should know, The Washington Post, September 30, 2021