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How to handle the end of 3G networks for your IoT devices

AT&T will shut down its 3G network in February 2022, and Verizon plans to shut its 3G network down at the end of this year. This won’t come as a surprise to the businesses that have built cellular 3G into their connected products, but it’s still a disruption for the internet of things. For example, my 2014 Tesla Model S has a 3G modem with connectivity from AT&T. I’m still waiting for Tesla to explain what happens next.

Sean Miller, president at PointCentral, an division that provides security and home automation for the rental market, says that his firm is in the middle of refreshing older hubs with 3G modems and replacing them with hubs containing 4G modems. While the transition wasn’t a surprise to the company, some of its customers are confused as to why they need to update something that is still working just fine.

As consumers, we don’t think about this because we naturally upgrade our devices every few years, but in the IoT we have some customers who will be affected,” Miller says. “I do think the lifecycle of a cellular modem will be something that we collectively become more conscious of.”

As a business customer of the carriers, PointCentral has contracts that promise a functioning network until 2022, so it has plenty of time to prepare. Replacing the old 3G modems means replacing the hub that controls all of the devices in the rental unit.

Miller says the firm has built software that will automatically transition the Z-Wave devices from the old hub to the new one without forcing the user to go through the pain of unpairing a bunch of devices from a network and repairing them. While the software hasn’t been used at scale yet, Miller believes it will work at scale when most customers start their transition next year.

This transition will come with a cost. Miller says most customers will be charged for the upgrade to a new hub (they will also get new features), but he thinks they’ll be fine with that as it was already made clear to them that the useful life of the hubs would be about 3-5 years, and PointCentral stopped selling 3G hubs a few years ago. That said, some may end up frustrated, believing that if something is working, it should continue to work.

Other big companies are also transitioning. Construction, mining, and farming equipment behemoth Caterpillar is swapping out older 3G gear for new 4G modems with help from CalAmp, which makes the devices that provide connectivity for Caterpillar’s fleet. Jeff Clark, SVP of product management at CalAmp, explains that it started adding 4G LTE to its devices alongside 3G modems back in 2016 and 2017 to help ease this transition. It stopped selling 3G-only devices about three years ago.

Still, a segment of the CalAmp customer base, especially larger companies, are now getting upgraded in order to meet the early 2022 deadline. Clark says the upgrade comes with new features and applications that typically will raise the cost for device connectivity overall, offsetting the increased cost of some of the hardware. He also expects that some enterprise customers will ask carriers for an extension on the life of their 3G network while they continue to transition. If that happens, telcos will simply have to explain to the owners of the fleets where existing 3G network coverage stops.

For carriers, the transition means they will be able to reallocate the spectrum currently being used for 3G networks for use by 4G and 5G networks. This will both increase the bandwidth on some networks and boost the reliability of 5G as some of the prime airwaves that can travel through buildings and over longer distances get repurposed.

As to the end of 4G networks, most expect it will be a decade or so before that becomes a reality. In fact, neither CalAmp nor PointCentral are combining 4G and 5G modems into their devices in preparation for the 4G shutoff. Indeed, Clark doesn’t anticipate those dual-mode devices coming out for another six or seven years.

In the meantime, I’ll wait and see what happens to my Tesla.

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