Rural America May Experience Service Blackouts as Providers Sunset 3G Technology

The lack of service could be particularly dangerous for individuals dependent on their cellphones to get out of domestic violence situations, experts say.

As telecommunications companies prepare to sunset their 3G networks, some activists are worried about what that will mean for residents of rural America, particularly those who may find themselves in situations of domestic violence.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, mobile carriers are shutting down their 3G networks, which rely on older technology, to make room for more advanced network services, including 5G. This means that many older cell phones will be unable to make or receive calls and texts, including calls to 911 or use data services. This will affect 3G mobile phones and certain older 4G mobile phones that do not support Voice over LTE (VoLTE or HD Voice).

The companies are shutting down the services at various times throughout 2022, with AT&T expected to shut down the 3G service by the end of February, while Verizon will wait until the end of the year.

“Access is hard anyway, just due to the remoteness of our communities,” said Lori Jump, director of StrongHearts Native Helpline, a hotline for and by American Indian and Alaska Native peoples in an interview with The Daily Yonder. “We’re not located for the most part in major cities or urban areas. So access has always been an issue for Indian Country.”

StrongHearts is a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

Jump said certain groups are going to be affected more by the 3G shutdown: People in rural areas, those living on reservations, people who are low-income, and people of color. “These are the people who are going to be most impacted by this,” she said.

Native survivors are twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault, two and a half times more likely to experience violent crimes, and five times more likely to be victims of homicide in their lifetimes compared to all other races in the country, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Jump noted that most of the press coverage about the change has been around 5G and its potential to interact with airlines and their ability to communicate.“And so if you’re not really looking into this, you probably don’t even know that your phone isn’t going to work eventually,” she added.

For survivors of domestic violence, there are two ways this could affect them: They may soon not have a working phone to be able to call 911 and ankle monitors for perpetrators may not work sufficiently because they are also on the 3G network and smaller communities may not have the resources to upgrade them, Jump said.

“Both of those are huge safety issues for survivors,” she added.

Verizonhas stated since 2016 that they would decommission the 3G network eventually. It was pushed back from 2019 to 2020 and then 2022.

“We worked for the past several years to help those who still have 3G devices transfer to devices capable of accessing the 4G LTE or 5G networks and continue to actively work with remaining 3G customers to migrate them to new devices and technology,” Vice President Mike Haberman wrote in a post on the carrier’s website. “As a result of those efforts, we can now report that more than 99% of our customers are using the enhanced features of 4G LTE or 5G, with less than 1% still accessing the 3G network.”

A spokesperson for AT&T, meanwhile, said in a statement to The Daily Yonder that the company has  “proactively sent numerous communications via direct mail, bill messaging, emails and text messages to help customers transition to next generation networks before 3G services end on February 22. We are working with customers to make this process easier, including in a substantial majority of cases providing free replacement devices.”

Kelley Weber is the executive director of The Hope Center in Athens, Tennessee.

Though she mentioned that many of her own employees have trouble with getting cell service in the rural areas, many of the survivors she sees at the shelter come in with phones, sometimes phones provided by the abuser as a way to always get a hold of them or monitor their social media use.

Still, she said, the change in 3G will affect some survivors because their phones won’t work. “You’re actually going to have to physically remove yourself and get to a place where you could get help,” Weber said in an interview with The Daily Yonder.

Every survivor who comes to the shelter is provided help to sign up for a government program to get a new phone, if eligible, Weber said. Previously, they might have provided the survivor with a donated phone, but donations have slowed down as people are now allowed to turn in their phones for credit toward a new phone.

Assurance Wireless is a federal Lifeline Assistance program. Lifeline is a government assistance program that provides eligible low-income customers free monthly data, unlimited texting, and free monthly minutes as well as a free phone.