Millions of IoT devices running on 3G need to make the move to 5G before the older networks disappear

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Emergency alert devices and telematics systems must upgrade hardware and ensure data from the devices is cloud-compatible.

Image: iStockphoto/NirutiStock

Most of the tech world is focused on how many smartphone owners have 5G-ready devices, but there are still millions of people and services using 3G. 

The end is coming for 3G service in the US with AT&T is planning to turn off its 3G service in February 2022, while Verizon 3G will end for commercial and government fleet customers at the end of 2022. T-Mobile is expected to start shutting its 3G network in the last quarter of this year and to continue the process through the end of 2022.

An Open Signal report estimated that in 2019 about 30 million people in the US were still using 3G connections. As of mid-2019, there were more than 80 million active 3G devices in North America, according to RCR Wireless News, including home security systems, in-vehicle telematics units, and emergency call boxes. 

SEE: Future of 5G: Projections, rollouts, use cases, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Fleet managers rely on electronic logging devices and other Internet-of-Things devices to track trucking fleets. According to a November 2020 article on Trucking Info, John Nichols, executive vice president of sales for North America at Mix Telematics, estimated that about 80% of his customers are still using 3G devices. 

These connections are going away as carriers shut off 3G to make room for 4G LTE and 5G.  

That means devices that rely on those networks lose coverage. This includes medical alert technologies as well as telematics systems.  

SecuraTrac is one of the companies with 3G devices still in use. Chris Holbert, CEO of SecuraTrac, said his company has three customer segments for its mobile personal emergency devices: Individual older adults, healthcare facilities, and industries where workers are on the job alone in risky conditions such as oil rigs. The company sells to large companies like Exxon, organizations that provide home healthcare workers, and Rescue Alert. SecuraTrac’s hardware is a mobile emergency response that adults with Alzheimer’s or children with autism wear. Caregivers use the device to monitor the location of the person wearing the device.

“The device has geofencing capability so you can set a virtual fence around any geography, a city, a county, or a home,” he said.

The device uses Wi-Fi to locate an individual using the Wi-Fi access point as a proxy for the person’s location within a building. The device also can detect falls by measuring a change in angle, a lack of movement, and force of impact.

The newest SecuraTrac devices run on 4G, but older devices still use 3G connections. Holbert said that fewer and fewer 3G ports are available on cell sites and some have none.

“That means you will get located but you won’t communicate over cellular because you can’t find a port,” he said. “The likelihood that you’ll have a good connection that is timely is less and less.”

Holbert said that upgrading SecuraTrac devices to work on 4G networks is not a big deal. The features 5G supports such as streaming video and telemedicine are not relevant for most SecuraTrac use cases.

“Making use of 4G and 5G doesn’t help us and it adds cost to us and our customers,” he said.

In addition to upgrading hardware, companies with devices that use 3G must make sure data from the devices is compatible with the cloud.  

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