Looking Back at When 3G Sunset Efforts All Started

Shifting deadlines, new technology, puzzling decisions, a pandemic — there were numerous factors that made the 3G sunset more difficult than 2G’s.

Looking Back at When 3G Sunset Efforts All Started

I’m going to cheat a little this month and share some of thoughts and words I communicated back in the summer of 2018. It wasn’t an article that I wrote, it was a white paper for the purpose of memorializing an anticipated challenge that surfaced sometime before that summer. At that time, it was very clear that the cellular carriers planned on the sunset of the 3G cellular networks in the upcoming four years.

The sunset of a major wireless network was not new for the security and life-safety industry as we had experienced the sunset of the analog radio network many years before and then later on in the years the sunset of the 2G cellular network. It was communicated and confirmed that the 3G cellular network was slated for permanent retirement. The only saving grace, was that the carriers provided a four-plus years ramp for the industry to update their network of radios and systems.

As we learned, retirement dates staggered by carrier and changed along the way. What made this sunset a bit different was that during the 3G period, cellular radios became more widely utilized and it was no longer for just central station backup communications anymore.

Cellular systems and communications were now the umbilical cord for home controls, notifications, video and the mobile applications end users utilized to view and manage their systems.

The Sunset at Hand

As far back as 2018, the industry and the end-user subscriber base were once again facing a path toward the sunsetting of the primary cellular network known as 3G. As most already know, the next generation was 4G or LTE. Now the latest and greatest is 5G.

Some carrier public statements in 2018 stated that networks would not activate any new 3G systems, radios, telephones, etc. after Dec. 31, 2018. It was also communicated to the public that it was expected that the entire 3G cellular network will be retired and shut down in its entirety by Dec. 31, 2022.

The silver lining and good news regarding this migration to the 4G network comes from the other acronym, LTE. It is expected that this new 4G network would still operate when 5G was active and will have a lifespan that extends to the mid-2030s and possibly beyond.

Although some of the dates seemed to improve since the initial announcements, the path to the retirement of the 3G networks was very clear. AT&T announced that it will finish shutting down its 3G network by February 2022. Verizon announced that it will finish shutting down its 3G network by Dec. 31, 2022. T-Mobile announced that it will finish shutting down Sprint’s 3G CDMA network by March 31, 2022, and Sprint’s 4G LTE network by June 30, 2022.

The statements really didn’t come with any ambiguity, although many were hopeful that a coalition would mount enough pressure to force the carriers to push the dates out further. Especially two years after the announcements when COVID became a reality and created and compounded the challenges.

Who Was Paying Attention?

With the targeted dates and historic data on how sunsetting tends to accelerate in certain areas, you would think that everyone was on top and in front of this issue. Although many were on top of this issue, unfortunately, many others were not. From the intrusion and fire side, manufacturers like Napco were very early in offering a host and variety of intrusion and fire cellular radio solutions that were all 4G and way ahead of the issue.

On the mobile medical alert side known as mPERS, you have companies such as Anelto that were the first to launch their flagship mPERS that is 4G and fully functional with a backend dealer portal.

With these choices as well as others, it was and is totally bizarre that dealers would choose to still install and offer 3G cellular radios and mPERS after the sunset was announced when they had choices to utilize 4G radios as a natural, controlled and nonstressed manner to a successful migration. Why compound a problem that already exists?

Why Look Back?

The reason I felt it was important to share this retrospective memory, is to highlight that we had time as an industry and the manufacturers were supportive very early on. It is understood by experience that it is challenging to force change of subscribers. It is also understood that not every dealer operates under the same financial model when it relates to selling, leasing and upgrading subscriber systems. All this plays a big part on how a dealer can address this and similar issues in a manageable structure.

Subscriber participation is essential. Assuring proper communication to the subscriber outlining the issue and how it will affect them is of paramount importance. The structure of giving the cellular radios away for free or low cost versus charging full price is less important.

Everybody’s model is different. It’s all about proper communications and a structure that allows for a smooth transition from a sunsetting network to the current network. In my travels I know and have met many dealers that migrated their entire subscriber base way in advance of the shutdown.

Unfortunately, many did not or could not accomplish this transition prior to the network retirement date. It’s likely a variety of reasons caused some of these companies the pain of not beating the shutdown deadline. Although the reasons may differ for those who are in a tough place now that the AT&T deadline has passed, the one common element I have found from the companies who are all migrated is that that they started updating their subscribers very early on.

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About the Author


Peter Giacalone is President of Giacalone Associates, an independent security consulting firm.

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