Amidst the (hopefully) final throes of a brutal global pandemic, seniors and their families in the U.S. this year will face additional problems in 2022. The closure of major 3G networks will mean the end of the line for older mobile personal emergency response system (mPERS) devices used by the elderly across America.
Hundreds of thousands of these vital medical tracking devices will be rendered inoperable by the 3G shutdown, leaving elderly users and caregivers scrambling to switch to 4G and Wi-Fi-based devices. The upgrade cost, at least $150, comes at a time of great economic hardship for many ordinary folk.
The first Personal Emergency Response System (PERS) units were invented in Germany in the early 1970s. Initial PERS were bulky, and used a pendant linked to a landline phone, which tied the elderly to their home.
Cellular technology changed that picture significantly, delivering the prospect of a less shut-in life for many seniors — one that afforded them the mobility to run errands, visit friends and family, travel for vacation, all while aging in place.
Mobile PERS (mPERS) products rose to prominence around 2007. Typically, these wireless devices are worn in the form of a pendant or attached to a belt. The units are connected to a cellular network and can access GPS satellites.
Incorporating GPS tracking with cellular technology has improved the features offered on mPERS devices — like sending out alerts if elderly patients cross defined geo-fenced parameters outside their homes.
The change-over to 4G-based mPERS devices, often with Wi-Fi onboard, is happening now. Chris Holbert, CEO of SecuraTrac, tells me that location tracking using 4G & Wi-Fi data works especially well in densely populated urban areas where a user’s distance from an access point or cell tower is easily calculated.
In contrast, GPS doesn’t work as well in big city skylines crowded with high-rises or other large buildings, Holbert points out, because the positioning satellites need open sky in order to triangulate a user’s position.
Holbert notes that one aspect of newer 4G mPERS devices that many users don’t like is increased size and weight — a key concern when a user has to wear a device 24 hours a day. These units are bigger because the 4G chipsets are larger than their 3G predecessors.
With the sunset of 3G networks coming soon, Holbert knows that the adoption of 4G mPERS technology must continue apace. “We have 40% of our devices on 3G,” Holbert says, noting that probably a quarter of those devices are in operation in Canada, where Canadian operator Rogers has a “longer timeline on 3G.”
In the U.S., AT&T has said it will shut down its 3G network by February 2022. T-Mobile will shut down Sprint’s 3G CDMA network on January 1, 2022, and T-Mobile’s 3G UMTS network will reportedly follow in April 2022. Verizon has waffled about the exact date it will sunset 3G, originally planning to have shut it off at the end of 2018. The carrier’s 3G network remains operational in 2021, although the operator is encouraging users to migrate to newer networks.
Despite the imminent closure of many of the major 3G networks in the U.S., many cellphone users rely on a 3G connection. In May 2019, Telit said that more than 80 million devices still use 3G networks in North America. Even as carriers are phasing out 3G connectivity for cellphones, devices such as mPERS units, in-vehicle cellular modules, roadside highway call boxes, and emergency communications for elevators cling to 3G connectivity.
We’ve already seen problems with vehicle communications systems as 2G cellular networks were shut down in the U.S. In January 2017, the San Francisco MTA took weeks to update its “NextMuni” system, which predicts the arrival times of city buses and trains, and had used AT&T’s 2G network. Ma Bell caught the SFMTA out when they shut the network down.
Connectivity problems for a wider range of devices are likely to escalate as 3G sunsets.
Today, many people in the U.S. use 3G networks as their main — or quite possibly only — cellular connection. A study conducted by mobile analytics company Opensignal in the summer of 2019 estimated 3G-users numbered around 30 million. Opensignal reported at that time that 83% of the 3G-only users didn’t have a 4G plan, 13% spent time exclusively in areas where 4G did not reach, while 4% didn’t have a 4G-capable phone. Opensignal tells me it plans to revisit the topic of who in the U.S. is still using 3G in the near future, but hasn’t done so quite yet.
Internet access performance metrics company Ookla says that in the first quarter of 2021 to date, only 0.48% of consumer-initiated mobile tests taken with Speedtest were on a 3G connection. “That equates to slightly more than 22,000 tests out of over 4.7 million during the time period,” Adriane Blum, Ookla’s VP of marketing & communications tells me via email.
She stresses that Ookla doesn’t have an exact figure of how many people in the U.S. rely on 3G connections, but tests give some idea of usage. “The obvious caveat is that tests taken on Speedtest are not a one to one for U.S. population network usage patterns,” Blum notes.
Beyond 3G cellphone users, other important U.S. industries currently rely on 3G connections. In the fleet telematics sector, commercial vehicle fleets communicate with their dispatch offices using a cellular link. Much of the industry has converted to 4G-enabled communication and GPS tracking. There are, however, many holdouts waiting for the twilight ahead.
Indeed, there are likely tens of thousands of 3G telematics devices still in operation in the U.S. that will need to be replaced.
Lone workers in agriculture, oil and gas, and other industries also employ 3G mPERS devices for tracking and safety in the field. Good data on how many 3G holdouts there may be in these sectors is not readily available.
The most vulnerable population that is still using 3G, however, are seniors. The advent of cellular technology in medical monitoring and tracking devices allows many to live fuller lives in their twilight years. Adult children and caregivers should be asking whether seniors are still running on 3G, before the sun goes down for good.