3G Cell Network Shutdowns Could Affect 9-1-1 Calls

By Emily Scott, Public News Service
For The Posts

HARRISBURG PA – Mobile carriers will begin to decommission their comparatively slower 3G cellular networks this year, some by next month. That’s prompted Pennsylvania officials to remind people with older-model cell phones to prepare for the possibility that their phone service could be affected. The primary concern? The switch may result in some phones being unable to make calls or send text messages.

Taking older networks offline helps free up infrastructure to support more advanced services, like the newer and faster 5G (fifth-generation) version. Jeff Boyle, deputy director of 9-1-1 for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said owners of older phones are likely to be notified by their carrier if they are affected. But it’s smart, he added, to plan ahead in case of an emergency.

“If your phone is more than a few years old, you may need to upgrade your device to avoid losing service,” Boyle explained. “And calling 9-1-1 is often the quickest way for somebody to access emergency services. So plan now so that you don’t lose connectivity, including the ability to call 9-1-1.”

Cellular vendor AT&T said it will finish shutting down its 3G network by February. Competitors Verizon and T-Mobile expect to finish by year’s end. The move may also affect medical alert devices and home security systems. Lower-income residents whose phones may no longer be supported can apply for help through the Federal Communications Commission “Lifeline” program.

Need another reason to change phones? In an emergency, according to Lt. Adam Reed, communications office director for the Pennsylvania State Police, dispatchers and first responders rely on the 9-1-1 system to gather crucial information, including a phone’s location. Third-generation (3G) network phones may hinder the ability to provide assistance quickly.

“Whether it’s a vehicle crash, a criminal act in progress, or a medical emergency, seconds count when it comes to calling 9-1-1,” Reed said. “First responders will go wherever we need to save lives and help wherever we can, but again, we need to know where you are and what the emergency is.”

Groups serving people who are experiencing homelessness, or who are domestic violence survivors, occasionally provide clients with older phones that have no service plan but are still capable of making emergency calls. Users of such phones are urged to check with their assistance organizations to discuss options.

Photo by Curology via Unsplash, used under license