AT&T will shut down its 3G network in early 2022 as the company shifts its focus to 5G implementation (?) and compatible 4G LTE networks. Research firm Ovum estimates that the number of devices using 3G exceeds 85 million, while AT&T reports that 3G was still the choice for 11% of the company’s postpaid users last year.
AT&T’s decision to shutter 3G, disclosed in a Wednesday regulatory filing, follows rival Verizon Communications’s warning that it will disconnect 3G cellphones at the end of this year. Verizon said in a recent filing it is “aggressively refarming 3G bands” for 4G but still needs more spectrum to keep up with its users’ demands. Verizon executive Ronan Dunne told investors at a Thursday meeting that its 5G service will reach 30 cities this year. AT&T’s 5G service touched parts of 12 cities at the end of 2018, with nationwide service expected in 2020.
The demise of 3G in the U.S. has been all but certain after cellphone carriers spent billions of dollars over the past decade to blanket the country with 4G service. That standard, also known as long-term evolution, or LTE, allows users to download data 10 times as fast as its predecessor and has paved the way for many smartphone apps that require ample mobile bandwidth.
Winding down obsolete versions is a habit for telecom companies. In the 1990s they pushed analog cellphone users to the first digital standards, and later persuaded 2G users to upgrade to one of several wireless technologies with the 3G label.
The companies are driven by necessity. Cellphone users with unlimited data plans stream more video on the go, testing the limits of what service providers can handle. Getting customers off 3G allows carriers to free up wireless frequencies for 4G signals over broader swaths of the radio spectrum.
Early 3G phones kicked off the smartphone era by giving customers a reason to use their devices for more than just talking and texting. Apple Inc.’s cellphone sales took off after it launched the iPhone 3G.
AT&T said 11% of its postpaid customers were using 3G service at the end of 2018. More than 85 million devices use 3G, according to research firm Ovum. They include smartphones, tablets and devices like vehicle-location trackers. The coming changes could also affect users of prepaid cellphone brands like TracFone that use other companies’ networks.
Telecom executives are already shifting their attention to the latest group of engineering standards known as 5G, which are expected to make video streaming and downloads even quicker. The specifications also support many more connections at once, allowing carriers to go after more types of gadgets.
The end of 4G LTE service, if it comes, is years away. ITU-R  and ITU-T haven’t finished writing 5G standards, and telecom companies say it will take years to make 5G commonplace. Companies are less motivated to kill 4G service because it can work in tandem with 5G, unlike previous generations that forced carriers to devote a band of wireless spectrum to one technology.
Note 1. An AT&T representative chairs ITU-R WP 5D which is responsible for the IMT 2020 (official 5G) standard. Another AT&T rep chairs the WP 5D SWG on Radio Aspects within the Technology WG. Hence, AT&T has tremendous influence and impact on IMT 2020 yet it’s marketing communications department falsely claims the company has deployed “standards based” mobile 5G.