AT&T 3G sunset sets off alarms for monitor industry

Covid
The alarm industry blames Covid for its inability to get into customers' homes to make the necessary upgrades to 4G. (Pixabay)

T-Mobile isn’t the only one getting slammed for shutting off its 3G network in early 2022. AT&T’s plans to sunset its 3G voice network by February 2022 are causing panic in the alarm services industry.

Sure, the alarm industry was given about three years to prepare for it. But Covid-19 wreaked havoc on their ability to get into people’s homes to perform alarm upgrades, and there’s no making up for lost time.

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC) filed a petition (PDF) with the FCC a few months ago asking for a forced extension of AT&T’s 3G shutoff, saying it’s warranted to prevent harm to potentially millions of consumers. Verizon plans to shut off its 3G network in December 2022, and the AICC wants an equal amount of time from AT&T, which serves the bulk of its alarms.

AT&T provided the following statement to Fierce: “Like others in the industry, we plan to end service on our 3G wireless network next year. This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next generation technologies and services. Since well before we announced the February 2022 3G sunset date 3 years ago, we have been working with our customers and business clients on this transition and we will continue to do so.”

According to AICC, the alarm industry is heavily dependent on existing 3G cellular data service to transmit signals for nearly 6 million alarm systems in homes and businesses, affecting in the "tens of millions" of people. These alarms are installed in the homes of consumers – many of them elderly – to report fires, home invasions and/or medical emergencies. It includes the "I've fallen and can't get up" situations where the person wears a pendant or watch to alert responders. 

Retrofitting typically requires the alarm company to dispatch a trained technician to visit a premises to switch out the existing radio for a new one and upgrade the alarm panel.

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AICC spokesman John Brady lived through the earlier technology migrations, when AT&T and Verizon gave them longer time frames to prepare for the 2G to 3G switchover. Now, they’re serving a lot more customers with 3G but they’re getting less time to make the upgrades.

When they were told about the 3G to 4G move in 2019, “I think we looked at that and said, ‘OK, you know we appreciate the forewarning and here we go.’” The companies put time and effort into planning for those transitions, which, for the most part, went off without a hitch – until Covid came along.

Brady estimated the companies in the personal emergency response sector combined will spend more than $100 million to transition their customers from 3G to 4G without charging those in-home customers "a dime."

“What we’re facing, with the AT&T deadline of February, where the majority of our devices are on AT&T as opposed to Verizon – we’re facing the prospect of literally having to turn services off for these independently, elderly, living-at-home customers because we just can’t get to them,” he said.

Parts shortages related to the chip supply are creating a double whammy. “As much as we rely on AT&T and we understand the reasons why they’re working hard” to get to 4G and 5G, “we face an insurmountable task trying to save and protect lives without 3G/4G units, and we really do need more time,” he said.

Brady said the organization this week was informed that AT&T agreed to extend the 3G data network deadline, but since this story first published, AT&T said that’s incorrect; its original sunset of February 2022 still stands for 3G voice and data.* Personal emergency response devices require both data and voice services, Brady said. (In its earlier response to Fierce, AT&T didn't specify a difference in 3G voice and data network shutdowns.) 

Even with the Delta variant putting new roadblocks up and conditions changing on a daily basis, the industry could live with a December 2022 shutoff date from AT&T, according to Brady. “We’d like them to match the Verizon sunset time frame,” he said. The industry doesn’t have a lot of cellular devices on the T-Mobile network, so that isn’t as much of an issue.

The reliance on AT&T is tied to the start of 3G, when a lot of manufacturers and aggregators – KORE is among them – went with AT&T. “AT&T was far more aggressive” in offering pricing and bulk pricing deals, Brady said. Over time, alarm companies expect to transition to the FirstNet network – which is operated by AT&T – but that’s several years away.

*Story updated August 20 to clarify there's been no change in AT&T's February 2022 3G sunset date.