AT&T 3G shut down Feb. 22 to affect seniors with medical alert devices

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As many Americans begin to embrace newer and faster 5G wireless service, a previous generation wireless network is ending next week. The shutdown has huge implications for some products that still use older 3G networks, such as alarm systems and personal emergency response systems that many older people rely on for independent living.

AT&T’s final 3G shutdown date is February 22, which means many devices that use the network to contact emergency services will no longer connect to the Internet. The company said the shutdown was necessary to transition the service to newer networks.

Although AT&T announced the expiration date in 2019, giving companies years to prepare, the transition is occurring during a particularly tumultuous time that complicates upgrades for medical alert companies.

The pandemic has isolated its elderly clientele more than ever, scams and frequent robocalls have made them nervous about accepting requests for new free devices, and supply chain disruptions have complicated the acquisition of new equipment.

A group representing medical alert companies has asked the Federal Communications Commission for more time to prepare amid the challenges, but AT&T’s date has remained in place, ahead of its peers. Medical alert officials told CNBC that most companies in the industry operate on AT&T, meaning the carrier’s Feb. 22 deadline affects a large proportion of devices in use.

While it’s unclear how many devices could be left disconnected after Tuesday’s shutdown, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, the lobbying arm of a trade group in the surveillance industry, found in a survey of its members that approximately 2 million security, fire and medical alert devices remained on 3G, including hundreds of thousands of people with personal d emergency response.

Scams and supply chain disruptions challenge transition

In May’s petition to the FCC, the AICC asked the agency to provide emergency assistance by extending the 3G expiration date for AT&T. He called the consequences of not doing so “harmful, even deadly” for tens of millions of people whose alarm systems of all kinds could be impacted.

The group cited several issues that have impacted the ability of alarm service providers to transition over time, including the unavailability of alarm installers due to Covid-19 infection or care responsibilities, resources being shifted to more pressing matters during the pandemic, difficulty hiring and retaining workers, and supply chain issues including the global chip shortage.

AICC spokesman Daniel Oppenheim said in an interview that although AT&T gave about three years’ notice before sunset, the pandemic has delayed the industry’s transition plans.

“It’s basically robbed us of a year with the inability to get into people’s homes and businesses,” said Oppenheim, who is also the CEO of Affiliated Monitoring, which operates call centers for various IT companies. alarm and personal emergency response. “And even to the extent that someone was comfortable letting us into your home or business, then we had employees and technicians who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job.”

Even after the virus became less prevalent at times, Oppenheim said supply chain disruptions presented a new problem with lead times as long as 52 weeks on some equipment.

Matt Solomon, chief executive of medical alert provider LifeStation, has experienced first-hand some of the challenges cited by the AICC in the petition.

“There were times when it wasn’t entirely clear if we were going to get enough devices in time,” he said, citing supply issues. “Because the manufacturers in our industry faced the same problems as everyone else, except, not to minimize the challenges that the auto industry…but in theory, you could put off buying your new car if she wasn’t available. That, we had no choice. We had this difficult deadline that we were working against. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was a life or death situation.

Solomon said that to ensure LifeStation customers would stay connected through the transition, he took on more inventory than he normally would and diversified his vendors, spending millions of dollars between upgrades. level and customer service.

Raising customer awareness presented its own challenges.

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“You can imagine with any population that would be difficult. With an older population, it’s infinitely more difficult because they don’t really understand the evolution of technology,” he said. “Seniors are suspicious. They have been, I think on the positive, well trained to be suspicious. They get lots of calls all the time from lots of people telling them not to worry, it’s free, it’s fine . And we call them saying don’t worry, it’s free, we just need to send you a new one.”

To reassure wary customers, LifeStation contacted them in several ways and allowed customers to call them back with the number on their bill.

“We had to reach out to people in a variety of ways: emails, phone calls, letters, postcards, anything but a smoke signal to get their attention,” said Bryan Stapp, president of another response company. personal emergency, Medical Care Alert. He said appeals to seniors offering a new free device would immediately increase many customers’ defenses after years of business, including warning them of scams.

“On the one hand, we were happy that they knew people were trying to scam them,” he said. “On the other hand, it made our job a bit harder to get them upgraded. But we got through it.”

About a week before sunset, Stapp said all but three of the thousands of 3G devices they intended to replace had been upgraded. Stapp said it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the transition.

But Stapp said that for some markets, the transition really needed to happen much sooner than the final Feb. 22 deadline, because AT&T cut 3G service in some markets before then.

The benefit for seniors and their families who depend on these devices is that they now have access to more sophisticated devices with more features to help track their location and safety.

Medical Care Alert has also further diversified its devices by servicing some of its new equipment through Verizon. Stapp said this should enable stronger connectivity in areas with more Verizon coverage than AT&T.

Industry and government response

Although the FCC did not extend AT&T’s deadline, it did advise the company to create new roaming options to act as a bridge past the shutdown date for certain devices, which AT&T has accepted.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo is seen before the FCC net neutrality hearing in Washington on February 26, 2015.

Yuri Gripas | Reuters

In a statement, an FCC spokesperson said the agency is “actively monitoring the phase-out of 3G networks and, based on a comprehensive brief compiled by the agency, is working with all stakeholders on safeguards that will help ensure that remaining phones and IoT devices have a reasonable opportunity to upgrade to newer networks, including new roaming options to ease the transition.”

The agency has provided information to potentially affected consumers on its website.

But AICC, the alarm industry group, doesn’t think such solutions are enough. AICC’s Oppenheim said he still hopes AT&T will push back the shutdown date and said the roaming option has come so late that it’s largely unworkable for many. devices.

“Anything we can do to save lives is appreciated,” Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, an AARP-affiliated nonprofit, said of the homelessness option. “If that’s what they’re going to do today, it could save lives. And it could be a partial solution. But people are still asking for it to be postponed until the end of the year.”

“Since February 2019, we have been working with our business customers to help them upgrade their 3G devices to newer technology,” an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement. “We have sent many communications and our account teams have also worked with them to help them through their upgrade cycles.”

CTIA, a wireless industry group that represents AT&T and other carriers, said in a statement that the industry is ready for a smooth transition.

According to CTIA, 99% of Americans are covered by 4G networks.

“Wireless service providers have already successfully transitioned customers from the old to the new generation and have been working with them for more than two years, in many cases offering free phones and other forms of assistance, to make the transition from 3G even easier,” the group said. in a report. “Customers with questions should contact their suppliers to obtain more information and discuss options.”

Oppenheim said that without the pandemic, three years would have been enough for the transition, but he said AT&T would ignore those challenges. And he pointed out that the 3G sunset is a bigger increase than the earlier 2G retreat due to the influx of connected devices that arrived during the 3G era. Kamber said even the few extra months between now and December would help put more systems on the new networks in time for the network shutdown.

“Now that there’s a bit of openness in the pandemic restrictions that people have, it creates a chance for people to have a technician come to their house or have been vaccinated,” Kamber said. “We think this is a year in which hopefully everyone who wants and needs to make the transition can do so. And manufacturers will also be able to eliminate a lot of the backlog of the technology in the supply chain.”

Kamber encouraged Americans to take inventory of connected devices in their homes and, if they were installed a few years ago, to call their vendors to make sure they’re running on a newer network.

“I encourage people to look at this as a chance to do some planning for the next generation,” Kamber said.

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