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Over the next 18 months or so, the large telecom companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile will be turning off their 3G copper wire networks – what they call “sunsetting” or “retiring” the networks.  

AT&T has stated they will sunset their 3G network in February of 2022. Verizon will sunset its CDMA (a popular cell phone standard) network at the end of 2022, and T-Mobile will shutter its 3G networks in April 2022.

Turning off a national network is not like turning off the Wi-Fi in a house. Sunsetting a cellular network is quite a complex transition and takes several years. One of the problems facing rural America is that the carriers have been in transition for years now, but much of the general public has no idea what’s going to hit them in 2022.         

Who’s in Charge?

For previous transitions, there clearly has been a federal agency in charge, usually the FCC since telecom issues are primarily their responsibility. But for the 3G standard, no one appears to be in charge. 

In 2012 there were what was then called “The Tech Transitions,” general transitions of various sets of technologies evolving to the next set.

“We were successful in working through a set of rules to govern the transition, preserve competition, to continue to protect consumers and maintain a universal access to voice services in the rural United States,” said Harold Feld, Vice President at Public. “However, the Trump administration repealed all of the safeguards, enabled incumbents could retire the copper networks with fairly minimal obligations to the public.”

Now there is serious cause for concern. The alarm industry, for example, has filed a petition with the FCC asking them to require AT&T to slow its shut down. Many of their companies have alarm systems that are still dependent on a 3G network and they haven't been able to upgrade because of the Covid-19 pandemic and chip shortages.

In spite of whatever dilemmas the FCC is facing, the agencyu has to step up, said former FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, and Principal at MLC Strategies. “The FCC has a consumer protection obligation, that regardless of how we communicate whether it's by voice or online, there is a backstop, there is an authority, there is an agency that will look out for our interest. There is no negotiation when it comes to this.”

Considering how quickly the FCC and other federal government agencies have put multibillion-dollar grant programs for broadband, it’s time some people consider creating big-dollar programs specifically for helping those who will be harmed the most by 3G sunsetting. At the same time, broadband advocates need to put serious pressure on the FCC to hammer on the incumbents to extend their sunsetting deadlines.

POTS – It Ain’t Dead Yet! 

“Abandoning ‘plain old telephone service’ – POTS – is not the problem because the copper wires that drive 3G networks are obsolete and are being replaced with 4G networks or fiber infrastructure,” said Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam, a wireless internet service provider, or WISP.  “The problem is abandoning customers in rural areas and small towns who have few if any, choices for broadband.”   

Nell Geiser, Research Director at Communications Workers of America concurs. “While 3G is being gradually replaced, the replacement is not happening at the same speed for everybody.”

“Some of the most vulnerable populations may be disproportionately impacted by the transition: older people, lower-income households, people with disabilities,” said Geiser. “There are those without any access to the new technology who have not upgraded or do not have access to new technology.

There are the traditional aggravations of communicating in sparsely populated areas where residents can’t get a dial tone after a storm. There are the communities that need a functionality assessment to actually determine what types of 4G or 5G technologies are needed. But which incumbents are willing to make that type of investment in these rural areas?

Then you have to layer in on top of everything else the wear and tear of the network that, in essence, becomes a “de facto retirement” of the network.

“In a sense, allowing the network to fall apart is tearing up the social fabric and the social contract as everyone hopes that the free market will somehow find a way to help those in need,” Geiser said.

“I think you will increasingly see communities and hamlets not only speaking aggressively to their needs but also proposing different types of public-private partnerships to meet those needs,” Clyburn said.

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