AT&T's 3G shutdown plans are 'harmful, even deadly,' warns alarm industry

According to the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, there are fully 6 million alarms installed in homes and businesses around the US that rely in part on the 3G networks operated by AT&T and Verizon. And a large portion of those devices might not work starting next year.

The shuttering of 3G will be "harmful, even deadly," according to the association, impacting "tens of millions of people in millions of homes, businesses and government installations due to a loss of central station alarm protection service."

As a result, the group is asking the FCC to prevent AT&T from shutting off its 3G network until the end of next year.

Keeping up with the Gs

Installed by security companies like ADT, at issue are the alarms that monitor for things like fire, home invasions, medical emergencies and dangerous carbon monoxide levels. Such gadgets often communicate with emergency personnel via wired networks, but also use wireless connections as a backup in case the location's primary connection has been damaged or is otherwise unavailable. Indeed, according to the Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), such backups are sometimes required by insurance companies and are often "more reliable and [a] higher-quality solution" than other options. AICC is a part of the bigger The Monitoring Association (TMA), a trade association representing the professional monitoring industry.

The AICC explained that the alarm industry has experience in transitioning from one G to another.

"When the 2G network was sunset, service providers announced a 4-year transition period. At the time, the alarm industry operated approximately 2.4 million cellular-based radios," the group told the FCC in a filing earlier this month. With 3G, though, the industry is struggling to deal with even more devices in an even shorter timeframe.

Specifically, the group said around 2.4 million alarms connect to Verizon's 3G network, while 3.6 million connect to AT&T's 3G network. After several delays, Verizon has announced a 3G sunset of December 31, 2022, "which the alarm industry is fighting to meet," according to AICC. But AT&T plans to shutter its own 3G network even earlier, by February 22, 2022.

"Unfortunately, it has become clear that the AT&T-imposed deadline cannot be met by the alarm industry due to the time lost during the ongoing COVID pandemic," wrote AICC.

Bouncing to a solution

In its filing, the AICC said the alarm industry has been working with both AT&T and Verizon for years to replace all the affected alarms – a daunting task, according to the group, considering it often requires skilled technicians getting into crawl spaces and other difficult-to-access locations in order to swap out modems in a process that can take up to three hours.

The group said a startup CellBounce developed a product that can be installed near a 3G alarm in order to bounce that transmission onto a 4G network, thus bypassing the need for a complicated upgrade. Security company ADT recently acquired CellBounce.

However, AICC warned that CellBounce won't be able to quickly build enough devices to cover the millions of customers who will be affected by AT&T's current 3G shutdown date, in part due to the ongoing global shipset shortage.

That situation – coupled with a pandemic that has hindered technicians' ability to get inside homes and offices to upgrade devices – forced a reckoning between the alarm industry and AT&T.

"The alarm industry continues to have frequent meetings with AT&T to discuss this situation," the group told the FCC. "AICC and the alarm industry still hope to reach a voluntary arrangement with AT&T to adjust its 3G sunset in a way that will protect affected alarm customers nationwide. However, as of the filing of this petition, AT&T has not agreed to do so, and therefore AICC must start the process of seeking appropriate regulatory relief."

Federal oversight for network shutdowns

The AICC is urging the FCC to force AT&T to delay its 3G shutdown for 10 months, until December 31, 2022, "while the alarm industry completes an expedited upgrade of alarm radios in protected homes and businesses during the pandemic."

Such a request has some precedent: Sprint's efforts to shutter its WiMAX network were delayed by a court order, and Dish Network is working to build regulatory support for its efforts to delay T-Mobile's 3G CDMA shutdown.

"Like others in the industry, we plan to end service on our 3G wireless network next year," AT&T wrote to Light Reading in response to questions about AICC's request. "This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next generation technologies and services. These plans are not new and we have been working with our customers and business clients during this transition."

The financial analysts at New Street Research say it's unclear how the FCC might rule on the topic.

"It is too early to have any conviction on what the FCC will do but we think it likely the Democrats on the commission will be loathe to allow any shutdown that results in significant costs or cut-offs to low income persons, but will want a glide path that allows the shut downs to proceed with significant notice and potentially subsidies to those potentially cut off," they wrote in a note to investors this weekend.

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

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