3G Could End This Year. For People Who Rely on Basic Phones, That’s a Big Problem.

Some rural residents, religious communities, and people who just like simple phones are still reliant on the vanishing network

Mia Lipsit in Manhattan, New York, on January 10, 2021. Photos: Yael Malka for OneZero

Over the years, Mia Lipsit has innovated a number of tech workarounds to avoid buying a smartphone: She’s hacked her Kindle Fire to download Google Play (so she can use the Whole Foods app), listens to podcasts on an old iPod, and stays in touch with friends using a flip phone.

But in October, the fiftysomething New York City resident realized her days of smartphone-free living are coming to an end. That’s when Verizon customer service informed her that, beginning January 1, her simple cellphone would be rendered useless by the sunsetting of 3G.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Lipsit, who has already acquired a used iPhone 7 and found a family plan to hop onto. “The phone gods have made their wishes clear. I feel like I fought against it for so long, and now I’m surrendering.”

Since 3G’s debut in 2001, more people entered the airwaves using 3G tech than any network before it. The network made cellphones capable of web browsing and video streaming for the first time, though at speeds about 500 times slower than the current standard cellular network 4G.

Now, after nearly two decades of service, during which it laid the groundwork for 4G and 5G, 3G is preparing to breahe its last.

All major U.S. carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, as well as Cricket) have announced death dates for 3G support. Though these shutdowns have been repeatedly delayed, with Verizon most recently postponing its plan to shut down the network, it’s clear that 3G’s days are numbered. This month, T-Mobile has begun a piecemeal sunsetting by shutting down service to a host of older phones, some that operate on 3G.

Mia Lipsit on her phone in Manhattan.

Ending 3G will free up bandwidth for better 4G and 5G service. “Cellphones use radio frequency bandwidth,” explains Seva Epsteyn, a data communications engineer who helped create the community network NYC Mesh. “Carriers pay the FCC to use the bandwidth, which is analogous to a highway: Shutting off 3G is like shutting down its slow lane, making more room for fast lanes.”

But the sunsetting of 3G will also leave those who still depend on the network with phones that are as good as paperweights.

“If you have a 3G phone, the day they cut you off, your phone won’t work anymore. It’s going to die in a night,” says Doug Dawson, president of telecom consulting group CCG. “There’s gonna be people who get stranded because of this.”

According to industry group Global System for Mobile Communications’ most recent report, 9% of U.S. subscribers still used 3G networks in 2019. Some of these subscribers still use 3G by necessity: Dawson says that large swaths of rural America, for instance, have 3G service but not yet 4G or 5G, making locals dependent on the dying network, especially as telecom companies are actively phasing out landlines. Other 3G users belong to religious communities that avoid internet access or are internet-averse flip phone devotees — virtually no widely available 4G and 5G models come without browsers or Wi-Fi connections. Still others use old 3G phones because they cannot afford to buy new ones.

And it’s not just individual smartphone users: Many other devices use the network, too. Rural credit card processing is probably the biggest non-cellphone 3G use, Dawson notes.

Erin Smith, a resident of western Minnesota’s heavily wooded and lake-peppered Otter Tail County, recently received warnings from Verizon that a phone on her plan will soon be booted due to the end of 3G network support. Though 4G is intermittently accessible in her area, she does not want to buy a new phone for each member of her family. And since internet coverage is poor, having a phone is important: “A lot of people use phones for their internet access,” Smith says. Many Otter Tail locals without internet at home will trek to municipal liquor stores and other public Wi-Fi outlets to get online.

“The phone gods have made their wishes clear.”

While 3G provides a slow but operable web connection for many rural Americans, its slower data speed and lack of automatic broadband offers some removal from the web for those who wish to keep it at arm’s length. “I’ve never seen a 4G phone that doesn’t automatically come with broadband capabilities” says Dawson, adding that “some older 3G phones don’t even have data capabilities.”

While the difference may seem minute to most users, it’s huge for intentional communities that attach significant weight to the nuances of the technology they use.

For some religious groups that discourage internet browsing, saying goodbye to 3G means losing the last network on which phones without the option to connect to wifi are available, which they treasure as these phones allow them to be on the grid but not online.

“We heard a lot of rumors about it — it’s a big issue in the Orthodox community, cause there’s a mindset of avoiding the internet, especially social media, as much as possible,” says 24-year-old Nechama, who is a member of an Orthodox Jewish sect in Connecticut where internet use is stigmatized and who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used. “A lot of us have held onto our 3G phones until now.”

The Connecticut-based teacher and her husband both have Verizon 3G flips, although Nechama knows many fellow Orthodox community members who have smartphones that use an internet filter, and she has heard about kosher 4G phone models that are internet-free.

The Amish have a reputation for shunning technology but in fact simply prioritize family bonds above it and take a communal approach to tech. The traditionalist Christian group does discourage internet use but has a long history with “community phones,” and many districts allow use of shared cells. 3G phones provide a separation between the phone part of a cellphone and the internet.

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone in Brooklyn, New York, on January 10, 2021.

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, a member of an Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York, and the founder of event organization Tech Tribe, says he met with an old-order Amish family in 2018 to discuss potentially going in with them on a wholesale purchase of custom Wi-Fi-free mobile devices. Though Lightstone himself uses an Android smartphone, the family came to him because he is familiar with the intricacies of adopting technology under religious constraints. “When it comes to the Jewish community, there’s a lot of diversity in how people choose to deal with technology,” he says. “All of it stems from how people create healthy boundaries in their life, how they deal with this fire that exists out there. Having it serve you instead of you serving it.”

The Amish family had a closed-network intranet for their office and used 3G work cellphones. “They were worried about the impending decline of 3G,” Lightstone says. “They were hoping I could introduce them to someone who could help them bulk-order special phones that wouldn’t have internet available.”

Lightstone was unable to help them.

Even some who don’t take religious issue with having an internet connection still prefer basic feature phones for ideological reasons.

Queens-based photographer B.A. Van Sise isn’t throwing in the towel on his “dumbphone.”

“I’m more connected to people because of it,” says the proud flip phone owner who pays $11 per month for the device, which he bought in 2010 for $9. He credits the phone with letting him “experience much more of my world” than he would if he were distracted by a smartphone. (Director Christopher Nolan this month told People Magazine that he feels similarly about the “little flip phone that I take with me from time to time.”)

For Van Sise, maintaining the old phone has become something of a carrier leapfrog in recent years: When AT&T informed Van Sise it would be cutting off service to his phone, he switched to Sprint, but Sprint, too, has informed him that his phone will soon turn into a brick.

Van Sise has been shopping for a new feature phone but found they’re hard to come by. “If I can’t find a good flip, I’ll probably go back to a landline,” he says.

Last December, 25-year-old Brooklyn composer Hannah Livant received a notice from her provider that it would no longer support her flip, and she was forced to buy a more expensive, Verizon 4G-enabled phone that, to her frustration, can access the internet.

“I chose the dumbest model I could, but it still somehow connects to the internet on the smallest screen you’ve ever seen,” Livant says.

A representative for AT&T, the only major provider that returned OneZero’s request for comment on the end of 3G, said that customers who depend on 3G will receive “numerous communications leading up to and as we work with them on this transition, including direct mail, emails, and SMS message notifications.” Google Fi, Google’s telecommunications service, recently offered a $100 bill credit to incentivize users to upgrade off the network.

To many of those about to have their phones bricked, though, these notices may well look like marketing emails. Many AT&T customers thought an October email the carrier sent about it was a scam. They may be surprised when their phones no longer work.

Not every 3G phone serviced by a particular provider will stop working on the same schedule.

Portland, Oregon–based fisherman Tom, who uses his flip phone mostly as an emergency precaution and spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, believes it still runs on 2G.

“I haven’t heard of any 2G for years, but it’s possible that there are cell sites where a carrier never got around to turning it off,” Dawson says. “It could be ‘discontinued,’ but until a technician makes a physical visit to a remote cell site, it might still work in isolated pockets.”

The same thing may happen for 3G: While many towers will be turned off in a short period of time, there is no master switch, and some cell sites will live briefly past carriers’ forewarned death dates as technicians steadily switch them off, one by one.

Mia Lipsit holds her phone. Cellphones that use 3G networks were slated to be unusable by the end of 2020, an action that has been delayed.

Many say they already miss the flip phone’s glory days, recalling a simpler time.

“If there’s basically a grid of information that you have to be plugged into to be considered a member of society, and the alternatives are starting to be taken away… that is frightening,” says Matthew Gasda, owner of a 4G Alcatel Go Flip. “I don’t think there’s anything heroic about me having a flip phone, but at least it’s different.”

While a niche market of minimalist phones has emerged for folks like Gasda, users complain that none yet get it quite right.

His mother tries to buy him a smartphone every Christmas, but the 31-year-old playwright says he’ll hold onto his device. He says others who see his flip phone are often jealous. “Probably like one in four people I hang out with say, ‘I want that so bad,’” Gasda says.

Despite his commitment to the device, the envy of others, and the existential relief his feature phone brings him, Gasda finds himself frequently annoyed by how buggy it is.

“I hope someone invents a dumb smartphone,” he says. “Because these really are terrible.”

Features reporter & 4th generation Brooklynite

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