Will you need to upgrade your smartphone when 3G goes away?

By Stephanie Humphrey

Stephanie Humphrey

So 3G is going away – but what does that actually mean? Your cell phone works by connecting to mobile networks that send radio waves out to cell towers near you to transmit data – phone calls/text messages/etc. – to other people. Those radio waves fit into a specific spectrum of bandwidth that can be used for mobile communication. Right now, that spectrum of bandwidth accommodates 3G, 4G, and 4G LTE. If you look in the upper right corner of your smartphone, you should be able to see which network you’re using.

The problem is that there is only a finite amount of bandwidth that can be used for mobile networks, so when there is new technology available, the old technology must be retired to make room on the spectrum. And that is what’s happening with 3G right now. To make room for 5G, which is the latest and greatest mobile technology, 3G has to be shut down.

But what might this mean for you?

If you still have a 3G device – for example, a lot of flip phones are still using 3G – you will have to upgrade to a newer phone. Some home alarm systems and medical alert devices also use 3G and will need to be updated to newer models. And even the GPS or communication systems in some automobiles will not work as expected once they do not have access to a 3G network.

The three major cellular carriers are all planning to shut 3G down this year: AT&T’s 3G shutdown is scheduled for February 2022, Verizon’s shutdown is not expected to happen until December 2022, and T-Mobile (which includes Sprint) is taking a phased approach and will be shutting down between March-June 2022. 

There is one potential wrinkle in this plan though – airlines have been very vocal recently about the fact that airplane instruments will be affected by the implementation of the newer 5G technology. So, until that issue gets resolved, the 3G shutdown may be delayed. But delayed is not denied – 3G will likely be shut down some time this year, so you will want to be prepared.

You may be able to get a discount on a new device from your cellular carrier. And if you qualify, the FCC has the Lifeline program (www.lifelinesupport.org) that can help with a discount on the cell service on the new phone, which is likely to be more expensive with an upgraded device. Check with your device manufacturer if you have a home alarm system or wear a medical alert device. And it can’t hurt to head to your car manufacturer’s website to see if your make/model will be affected – the list of cars is fairly long and there are all types of brands and vehicle types – even some newer cars might be at risk.

A little preparation up front can make sure this switch goes as smoothly as possible because while this transition might be inconvenient for some of us, the upgrade to 5G will ultimately be beneficial for all of us.


Stephanie Humphrey is a former engineer turned tech-life expert and author. She is a contributor to “Good Morning America” and Fox 29’s “Good Day Philadelphia.” You can find Stephanie all around the web @TechLifeSteph, and purchase her book, “Don’t Let Your Digital Footprint Kick You in the Butt!” on Amazon.

Will you need to upgrade your smartphone when 3G goes away?

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