‘Lives Will Be At Risk': How a 3G Shutdown Will Impact Safety and Security Devices

Industries say switchover delayed due to COVID-19 and shipping issues

NBC Universal, Inc.

Quite a bit has been said about wireless carriers upgrading to 5G, but what hasn't gotten much attention is getting rid of older 3G technology to make room for it and other advanced network services.

On Tuesday, AT&T will be the first of the wireless carriers to shut down its 3G service. Others have agreed to wait until later in the year because so many industries have complained. They say they've been working to upgrade millions of devices which still rely on that older network, but between COVID-19, a chip shortage and supply chain delays, they won't make the deadline. That means everything from home security to fire alarm panels to car collision systems that communicate with 24-hour monitoring centers on that 3G network could be impacted.

"The United States is going to be disrupted. Lives will be at risk," said John Brady, who runs the largest personal emergency response company in the country, serving nearly a million customers. "I think the local person on the street doesn't see this coming at all."

Elizabeth Lynch sure didn't. The grandmother calls the little button she wears around her neck a lifesaver, literally. She had to press it two years ago.

"I had a fall, and my head was bleeding. My neighbors weren't home, so thank God I had my medical alert button. And before you know it, I could hear the sirens and I knew help was on its way," she told the News4 I-Team.

Her family got the technology seven years ago when her husband passed away, so they'd all feel safer with her living alone.

"It gives me a very secure feeling, extremely secure feeling," she said.

But that security is in jeopardy for many because every device must be switched out by next week. Brady says his company has sent countless notices and is spending more than $40 million.

"Bottom line is we're not going to be able to get this done," he said.

That’s due to what he calls the perfect storm. Since the deadline was announced in 2019, a worldwide chip shortage has limited production of 4G and 5G equipment. Plus, a supply chain disruption has delayed product delivery. Then add in the challenges from two years of COVID-19.

"We were on our way, we were organized and then all of a sudden, in March of 2020, the pandemic hit," said Brady.

That meant his elderly customers were locked down and technicians could not enter their homes.

"I probably would have said ‘no’ myself because I was very, very cautious, very cautious during COVID," said Lynch.

Comcast/Xfinity, which is the parent company of NBC Universal that owns News 4, has been sending new power adapters to its home security customers since the panel that communicates with the monitoring center uses 3G when it isn't on WiFi.

But those plugs are backordered until at least May. Other home alarm companies are having similar issues.

Airlines have known about the impending rollout of 5G cell signal for years now - and had time to prepare for how it would potentially impact planes' instruments, said Hugh Odom, a former attorney for AT&T. Airlines have warned they may cancel or change some flights, while cell companies have agreed to limit 5G signal around some airports ."The aviation industry has kind of dropped the ball," Odom said.

"You'll be amazed at how many people don't even realize their devices are on a 3G platform. They think they just automatically change when the technology changes," Brady said.

One group he says may realize their devices won't work: criminals. Those electronic monitoring ankle bracelets that alert when people on house arrest try to leave, or when alcohol abusers shouldn't be driving, also use 3G.

"I mean, that's sort of, that's just scary," said Brady.

Many of those industries have written to the Federal Communications Commission asking for a delay. T-Mobile agreed to extend through mid-summer. Verizon also set its deadline in December.

In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson told the I-Team, “Each new generation of wireless network upgrades generates new investment, jobs and innovative services. A delay would undermine the evolution to 5G, as it seeks to force us to devote scarce spectrum resources to support relatively few, obsolete 3G-only devices rather than repurposing the spectrum to enhance 5G capacity. For the last three years, careful planning and coordinated work with our customers has gone into the transition to 5G. Currently, less than 1% of our mobile data traffic runs on 3G networks. Forcing a delay would needlessly waste valuable spectrum resources and degrade network performance for millions of our customers.”

"Their response was, nope, that's it, we're doing this, and we went to the FCC because this is a life safety issue. People are going to be put in harm's way,” said Brady.

AT&T did not answer the I-Team's questions about the potential life safety impact. The FCC has yet to rule and did not respond to the I-Team's request for an interview or information.

"The FCC should step in and, based on life safety, should step in and give directive to AT&T to extend the sunset," Brady said.

It isn't just life-saving devices at stake. Energy-saving solar panel systems also communicate using 3G technology. Some customers won't be able to see how much power they're producing.

And what about personal physical power? Older-model fitness devices use 3G to connect the wearable device to the internet when it isn’t on WiFi.

"Ultimately, you have to move with the technology, and we're supportive of that move. This is about timing, " said Brady.

Lynch says the timing worked out for her. She had to call Life Alert a few weeks ago after a power outage and they immediately scheduled her upgrade.

"They gave me a new button, gave me a new one for my shower and the one to walk away with – all brand new," she said.

But she worries about her friends who are still waiting and hopes AT&T will extend the deadline.

"Please don't take it away, please,” she said. “We need it."

Find more information about AT&T’s shutdown of 3G here.

Check this list of devices that will still work on the AT&T network.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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