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State Police, PEMA warn residents with older phones that 3G network phase-out could result in loss of connectivity

Residents with older cell phones should be aware that the nation's three biggest wireless carriers will begin phasing out 3G networks as early as February.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and Pennsylvania State Police are urging residents with older cell phones to prepare for the phase out of 3G cellular networks and service this year.

“The best plan of action is to contact your service provider to determine if your devices are compliant,” PEMA Deputy for 911 Jeff Boyle said. “It’s important to plan now so you don’t lose connectivity.”

The nation’s three major wireless carriers–AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile–have announced plans to shut down their 3G networks to accommodate more advanced services, including 5G, as early as February, PEMA and PSP said in a press release. 

As a result, many older phones will be unable to make or receive calls and text messages or use data services, the agencies said.

This may also affect other devices that rely on 3G connectivity, such as medical alert devices, tablets, smart watches, home security systems and in-vehicle safety, security and roadside assistance systems.

“If your mobile phone is more than a few years old, you may need to upgrade your device before your provider shuts down its 3G network and you lose service, including the ability to call 911,” said Lt. Adam Reed, PSP Communications Office Director. “During an emergency, every minute counts whether you need police, fire, or medical assistance.”

Most users of these services will be notified directly by the carriers if this discontinuation affects them. However, users of older phones that are used only for 911 connectivity may not receive the notification if they do not have active service with a carrier, according to PEMA.

Organizations that serve individuals experiencing homelessness or survivors of domestic violence sometimes provide clients with older phones without a service plan for making emergency calls. Users of these types of 911-only phones should check with the organization that provided the phone about their options, PEMA and PSP said.

Low-income individuals concerned that their 911-only phones will no longer be supported should consider applying for service through the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline Program. Eligible customers will be able to get $9.25 off the cost of phone and internet.

Approximately 70% of 911 calls in Pennsylvania are made from a mobile phone each year, either by a voice call or a text message, according to PEMA and PSP. Text-to-911 is not yet available in all counties. You can find the status of text-to-911 service in the county where you live or work online

However, with upgrade deadlines approaching quickly, some Central Pa. residents who struggle to make ends meet are worried. 

"For people like us who are poor, you know, we have a basic...phone plan," said Christopher Funhour, a York resident. "I think it would be a good idea [to upgrade] but on the other half I don't think it would be a good idea." 

Although the phase-out process is stirring up confusion and stress for those who still use 3G services, some local technology experts say the phase-out process is positive and necessary since it makes room for more and faster modern infrastructure. 

"When we're getting rid of 3G, we're actually increasing, think of it as the bandwidth that's available for 5G," said Dr. Terrill Frantz, a Cyber Security Professor at Harrisburg University.

AT&T plans to dissolve its 3G service in February. T-Mobile and Verizon will make the switch in December 2022. 

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