With 3G’s Departure, We May See a Tidal Wave of Obsolete Hardware

December 13, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau

The sunset of 3G is scheduled for the end of next year. What does this mean for the millions of devices that rely on this wireless technology?

It’s official: the retirement of domestic 3G networks is looming. With the FCC focused on ushering in America’s 5G future, the Commission is urging mobile carriers to ramp up their modernization efforts—therefore bolstering 4G LTE and 5G UWB rollouts. What potential device ramifications will stem from these changes? 


The Current Networking Landscape

The FCC is tasked with managing and licensing the electromagnetic spectrum. The organization even auctioned off certain bandwidths for 3G use nearly two decades ago. Accordingly, its influence has been pivotal in helping carriers adopt all-new standards—from 2G to today’s 5G ultrawideband. 4G has become quite ubiquitous, as evidenced by this coverage map of America’s four major carriers:

4G is available to the vast majority of the U.S. population

4G is available to the vast majority of the U.S. population. Image used courtesy of the FCC


The FCC plans to update this map as the mobile landscape evolves. It’s clear that 4G LTE will remain the dominant, “accessible” network technology as 5G’s rollout matures. Relatively speaking, that transition is still in its infancy. Consider that T-Mobile’s 5G network—the largest in America—only covered 51.3 percent (or 1.6 million square miles) of the contiguous U.S. landmass in March 2021. Though 4G is over a decade old, it’ll play a vital supporting role in this transition. 

Despite its importance in rural America, 3G is becoming the telecom world’s red-headed stepchild—and its existing spectrum will soon be up for grabs. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile will be collectively phasing out their 3G networks by December 31st, 2022. AT&T will be leading the way—sunsetting its own 3G services by this coming February. These decisions will also impact a number of smaller, infrastructure-dependent carriers. 


Analyzing the Hardware Ripple Effect

While switching to 4G might be as simple as upgrading one’s cellular plan, a large number of consumers are still using older handsets. These devices lack the modems required to tap into modern networks. When 3G is decommissioned, users with 3G devices will lose connectivity. This applies to both voice and data. Budget phones and flip phones especially cannot support voice-over LTE (VoLTE), and may not support Wi-Fi calling within new carrier “dead zones.” 

Carriers like Verizon have claimed, however, that the subset of 3G-device users is quite small: just 1 percent of its customer base. The total number of American 3G users is up for debate, though estimates range from 5 to 10 million. According to the Pew Research Center, 11 percent of men and 12 percent of women own a cellphone, not a smartphone. It’s assumed that these groups own the vast majority of 3G-only phones nationwide. 


Diagram of a 3G broadband wireless system

Diagram of a 3G broadband wireless system. Image used courtesy of Wireless Dictionary

Carriers have planned ahead for this transition. Many are offering customers free replacements before they lose service. A simple components swap isn’t possible or practical, since cellular radios are matched to specific internals and layouts. Carriers are also sending out notices to users. Those who aren’t sure of their status should contact their providers. 

It’s easy to focus on mobile phones, yet the scope is much wider. The sunsetting of 3G will also impact tablets, smartwatches, medical devices, home-security hardware, and wireless in-vehicle services.


 3G W-CDMA cellular handset block diagram

 3G W-CDMA cellular handset block diagram. Image used courtesy of Sew-Kin Wong and ResearchGate

Here’s what we know:


Environmental Concerns

These obsolete 3G devices must go somewhere once they’re discarded. Devices (and infrastructure components) that aren’t recycled will fill landfills across the country. Leaching chemicals and heavy metals make groundwater toxic, and this drinking water reaches numerous homes nearby. 

Lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and bromine (among others) have historically been used in electronics. Older devices are typically bigger offenders in terms of toxicity. Today’s modern devices are more eco-friendly overall, thanks to a renewed focus on environmentalism. 


Evolution of broadband technology

Evolution of broadband technology. Image used courtesy of Ericsson and Ubidots

Only 15 percent of discarded electronics are recycled properly in the States. Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. states have imposed landfill disposal bans on electronics, as well. Accordingly, it’s clear that smarter practices are sorely needed if we’re to tackle the growing e-waste problem. It’s unfortunately unlikely for these improvements to be realized before 2023—since progress in such areas tends to be quite slow. 


The Future of Wireless Hardware and Standards

Today’s modems support a wider range of basebands—thus unlocking access to newer networks. As the FCC continues to divvy up portions of the spectrum, these developments will boost connection speeds while preventing congestion. 

Naturally, these 3G changes won’t be uncontested. Switching devices can be annoying or intimidating, especially for users that are comfortable with their devices. Right-to-repair advocates likely won’t be thrilled about these events. It’ll become necessary to purchase new devices instead. 

The continued deployment of 5G and 4G LTE will bring a lot of potential growing pains. However, carriers are banking heavily on the benefits of newer technologies—which will eventually become the norm across major metros and rural areas alike.