There was an interesting statement during the recent Verizon first quarter earnings report call. The company admitted that shutting down the 3G cellular networks cost it about 1.1 million retail cellular customers along with the corresponding revenues.
This was long expected because there are still a lot of places where 3G technology was the only cellular signal available to rural customers living in remote areas. There were also a lot of people still happy with 3G flip phones even where 4G was available. Some of these customers will likely come back with 4G phones, but many might be angry with Verizon for cutting them off and go elsewhere.
Verizon has been trying to shut down the 3G network for at least five years. Its original plans got delayed due to discussions with the FCC and then got further delayed because of the pandemic – it didn’t seem like a good idea to cut folks dead when cellular stores were shuttered.
This change was inevitable. The bandwidth that can be delivered on the 3G networks is tiny. Most of you remember when you used 3G and a flip phone to check the weather and sports scores. Cellular carriers want to repurpose the spectrum used for 3G to support 4G and 5G. This is something that is inevitable – technologies become obsolete and have to be upgraded or replaced. The 3G transition is particularly abrupt, because the only possible transition is to cut the 3G signal dead, and 3G phones become bricks.
All of the technologies used for broadband and telecom eventually become obsolete. I remember when we used ISDN to deliver 128 Kbps broadband to businesses. I remember working with n-carrier and other technologies for creating data connections between central offices. Telephone switches took up a big room instead of being housed inside a small computer. The earlier version of DOCSIS technology were largely abandoned and upgraded to new technology. BPON became GPON and is now becoming XGS-PON.
Most transitions to new technologies are phased in over time. You might be surprised that there are still working ISDN lines chugging along that are being used to monitor remote sensors. There are still tiny rural cable companies operating the early versions of DOCSIS. But the industry inevitably replaces ancient technology in the same way that none of you are reading this blog on an IBM 5150 or a Macintosh 128k.
But some upgrades are painful. There were folks who lost cellular coverage when 3G was cut dead since they lived in a place that might not be able to receive the 4G replacement. A 3G phone needed only a tiny amount of bandwidth to operate – at levels that newer phones would perceive to be far under one bar of service.
The other painful technology replacement that keeps getting press is the big telcos killing off the copper networks. When copper is cut off in an area, the traditional copper landlines and DSL go dead. In some cases, customers are offered to move to a fiber network. The price might be higher, but such customers are offered a good permanent technology replacement. But not every DSL customer in a city that loses copper service is offered a fiber alternative. Customers find themselves likely having to pay $30 or $40 more to move to the cable company.
In rural areas, the telcos often offer to move customers to wireless. For a customer that lives within a decent distance from a cell tower, this should be an upgrade. Fixed wireless delivered for only a few miles should be faster than rural DSL. But like all wireless technologies, there is a distance limitation around any given tower, and the FWA signal isn’t going to work for everybody. Some customers that lose rural copper are left with whatever alternatives are available – because the telephone company is basically abandoning them. In many rural areas, the broadband alternatives are dreadful – which is why many were sticking with slow rural DSL.
I hear a lot of complaints from folks who lose traditional copper who are upset that they lose the ability to use services that work on copper technology, such as fax machines and medical monitors. It may sound uncaring, but these folks need to buy something newer that works with today’s broadband. Those are the kind of changes that are inevitable with technology upgrades. Just like you can’t take your old Macintosh to get fixed at Best Buy, you can’t keep using a technology that nobody supports. That’s an inevitable result of technology getting better over time. This is not a comfort to the farmer who just lost his 3G cell coverage – but there is no way to keep older technology operating forever.