Survive and Thrive After the 3G Sunset

Bye-bye 3G. Today’s the day AT&T shuts down its 3G network in order to transfer its under-utilized 3G spectrum to its 5G network.

Generational upgrades to mobile networks are routine now that we’ve seen five of them. The only iPhones that will be affected by the upgrade are the first five models, 1 through 4S, and there aren’t many of them still in use.

But there has been some drama around this upgrade, although it hasn’t been as extreme as the FAA freakout over the C-Band spectrum used by the 5G phones. The drama all comes from companies dragging their feet after making poor design choices long before 5G transition.

Modular Design

Technology products, especially those that incorporate dynamic tech such as storage and wireless, have limited lifespans. Some of this is because nothing lasts forever, but most of it comes from the fact that technology that stagnates while the rest of the world is improving is undesirable.

While some phones are modular in the sense that their storage and battery are replaceable, iPhones aren’t. But all phones have an easy upgrade path to the next generation by simply backing up user data, replacing the phone, and restoring the data to the new device.

More expensive devices (such as desktop computers) employ modular designs for their networking capabilities. Original designs may build in the networking parts, but they have interfaces for newer or more specialized parts, such as USB ports and PCI buses. Upgrading to from 3G to 4G or 5G for such devices is simply a matter of buying the new networking module and plugging it in.

From Zero Trauma to Maximum Chaos

Not every upgrade is as smooth as the backup/replace/restore or “plug in the new module” scenario. Some manufacturers chose to save pennies by building in a networking module and failing to provide a USB or other upgrade port.

These don’t tend to be computer companies or even companies that are sophisticated about networking: they’re usually specialists in sensors, alarms, transportation, or medical monitors. A lot of smart home devices are locked into Wi-Fi standards that use the old school 2.4 GHz band.

I can understand why companies that sell $10 smart plugs don’t build in sophisticated networking capabilities; it’s just not worth adding 50 cents to the bill of materials cost. But life-and-death medical devices should be better designed, as most are.

 Cars are the Worst

Burglar alarms, home monitors, and medical monitors are bundled with services with monthly charges around $20. The sensor/communication modules of these systems are essentially throw-away parts that vendors routinely upgrade.

So there’s no trauma in replacing these sensors to take advantage of better networking. At worst, the customer makes a service call and a technician comes and replaces the obsolete part.

Cars are a whole different story, as the automobile industry has never fully wrapped its head around technology. Some car makers haven’t yet figured out how to upgrade the maps for their navigation systems, so we use our phones when we need accuracy (or even ease of use.)

But Some Cars are Better than Others

Some cars that rolled off the lot with 3G-enabled crash and SOS notifications will simply lose this capability after today: Acura, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes for example. Others will require hardware upgrades and some simply need software upgrades.

In several cases, manufacturers are shifting customers to after-market devices, some with subscription fees. The only car company that has a truly sensible, modular approach to connectivity is Ford/Mazda.

Ford/Mazda cars connect to the consumer’s smart phone and rely on it for networking. These cars also integrate phone navigation and music systems. This makes so much more sense that trying to replicate all of the functionality of a iPhone or Android device in the car itself. Maybe Boeing should try that.

What to do if You Lose Connectivity

Unless the manufacturer of a 3G-only device you own notified you of your upgrade path and you ignored it, you’ll either have to learn to live without it or switch to a more responsible vendor. I’m not in this boat, but if I were I would happily change to a better one.

For home alarms and medical alert systems there are many, many alternatives so you won’t be left high and dry. Just find a new service and switch over. The biggest home alarm company, ADT, is all set for 4G/5G.

If you have a car with built-in 3G and no upgrade path consider this is a lesson learned and rely on your smartphone for navigation and SOS. There are some nice dash mounts for what ever combination of car and phone you have. And ask more questions the next time you buy a car: you want one that integrates with your phone via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Aftermarket head units are also a good option. Some of these project your smart phone on a touch-sensitive big 10 inch screen.

Now isn’t it odd that the Department of Transportation always seems to be in the mix whenever we have a network upgrade problem? The agency needs to get its arms around technology upgrade cycles, this drama is becoming tedious.