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2G/3G/4G

AT&T inks last-minute 3G roaming deal with T-Mobile

AT&T is scheduled to turn off its 3G network today (Tuesday, February 22). But the company has apparently thrown a potential lifeline to affected customers by quietly inking a 3G roaming deal with T-Mobile that might keep some devices connected through July.

However, according to the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), AT&T's roaming deal with T-Mobile is too little, too late.

"There is simply not enough time for such arrangements to be made, and the actual roaming logistics implemented," the group told the FCC late last week.

AT&T is preparing to sunset its 3G network. 
(Source: Holmes Garden Photos / Alamy Stock Photo)
AT&T is preparing to sunset its 3G network.
(Source: Holmes Garden Photos / Alamy Stock Photo)

At issue are the potentially millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices connected to AT&T's aging 3G network (AT&T has said that 1% of its network traffic is 3G, but has not provided a number of affected devices or customers). AT&T announced in 2019 it would shut down its 3G network by this month, and has since been working to move affected customers onto its 4G and 5G networks.

Affected customers

However, the AICC and other companies and associations have been warning for more than a year that they cannot easily upgrade their devices to AT&T's newer networks. And that situation, they argue, is potentially "deadly" for the millions of Americans who still rely on 3G for things like home alarms that monitor for medical emergencies and dangerous carbon monoxide levels. As a result, such groups are asking the FCC to step in and require AT&T to continue to operate its 3G network for an unspecified length of time while they continue to upgrade affected devices.

In a web post earlier this month, AT&T's Joan Marsh said that the operator is working on a wide range of efforts to help those affected by its 3G shutdown. For example: "At the FCC's urging, we are using roaming options to bridge the IoT transition," she wrote, without providing details.

According to the AICC, those unspecified "options" actually stem from a new roaming agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile. "AICC was notified ... by the commission's staff of the signing of an agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile providing for roaming by AT&T 3G customers on T-Mobile's 3G network (which will continue operating until July 1, 2022), as a temporary measure to mitigate the impact of the AT&T 3G shut down," the AICC told the FCC.

An AT&T representative did not immediately respond to questions from Light Reading on the apparent roaming agreement.

In a lengthy filing with the FCC, the AICC argued the new roaming agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile would likely keep some devices connected – but that the solution wasn't enough.

"Many of the alarm radios set up on the newer Cisco Jasper platform can apparently be adapted for roaming," the AICC wrote. "Other 3G alarm radios may not be programmable for such roaming, especially PERS [medical emergency response systems] units that are widely used by the elderly, especially Medicaid patients and those requiring monitoring of medical conditions. The solution will also not help those 3G-based alarm customers where T-Mobile does not have 3G coverage."

According to public-interest group Public Knowledge, the FCC does have the authority to prevent AT&T from shutting down its 3G network. However, citing Communications Daily, Inside Towers reported that FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said during a news conference Friday that the agency probably would not force AT&T to delay its shutdown.

Responses and ramifications

The home alarm industry isn't the only one affected by AT&T's shutdown plans. Auto makers ranging from Toyota to Audi will also be affected, considering they use 3G connections for connected car applications such as emergency roadside calling.

And some automakers are implementing workarounds. For example, both Volkswagen and Audi are using Mojio's 4G Upgrade Program. The automakers are purchasing vouchers for Motion by Mojio, which includes a 4G LTE telematics device, new automatic crash notification and e911 emergency response service. The vouchers cost around $300 and can be distributed digitally to customers impacted by the 3G shutdown.

Ultimately, the impact of AT&T's 3G shutdown – and similar plans underway at T-Mobile and Verizon – may not have an immediate impact, according to the financial analysts at New Street Research. But that might change as 3G-connected emergency devices fail to work in the months to come.

"We don't think it likely that on Tuesday there will be a huge flood of stories about how device shutdowns are causing seniors to have their distress calls unanswered, school children stuck on lost buses or other disasters," the analysts wrote in a recent note to investors. "After all, such devices are often unused for long periods of time. Still, as stories trickle out, it could become a public relations problem for both AT&T and the FCC, putting both on the defensive ... as being perceived as not sufficiently sensitive to public safety. That could lead to rule changes that in the future add costs and time to such transitions."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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