3G Phaseout Could Leave Some Seniors Without Usable Mobile Phones

Older devices will stop working

Key Takeaways

  • Many older 3G networks will soon be discontinued in favor of faster options. 
  • Senior citizens often rely on devices that use 3G networks. 
  • Older flip phones are easier to use for those with poor vision.
A senior adult looking at an older version and a newer version of a flip-style smart phone.

Williamsburg Senior Living Community

Many older 3G phones will soon stop working, which could sever vital communications links for the senior citizens who rely on them. 

AT&T will retire the 3G network in February, T-Mobile and Sprint will shut it down between March and July, and Verizon at the end of the year. Faster networks such as 4G will entirely replace 3G, but it also means that many older devices won't connect. This change could leave seniors without connections to friends, family, and emergency services. 

"It's quite common for seniors to keep hold of old cell phone models, which are typically integrated with 3G," Bruce Canales, a digital strategist at the firm Amica Senior Lifestyles, which operates senior living sites, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Many are reluctant to switch to newer devices for fear that they won't understand the updated functions. In fact, we recently found that 96% of seniors would say that they are 'tech-savvy' in some way."

Flip Phone Appeal

Neelis Braud, 95, of Baton Rouge, La., is among the seniors who understand the appeal of older phones. Braud has macular degeneration and hearing loss.

"I use a flip phone because all I have to do is flip it open, and it answers," he told Lifewire in an email interview. "I have big fingers that are not agile, so touch screen phones do not work for me."

He recently upgraded from his 3G flip phone to his current 4G compatible flip phone. He previously used a Samsung zflip3. He tried using it with 'talkback' (using AfterShokz bone conductor headphones) but could not use the touch screen because his fingers shook. He could not see the apps even when the font was enlarged to the max in the accessibility settings. 

"I got this new phone because the old one kept on dropping phone calls," he said. 

He added that out of his group of friends at the senior community center, "about 5 out of 15 use a flip phone."

Stewart McGrenary, the director of Freedom Mobiles, an electronics recycling comparison website, said some older generations struggle with touch screens due to medical conditions, for example, poor eyesight or loss of dexterity. 

"And many seniors dislike social networking in part because they fear it will have a negative effect on their face-to-face social interactions," he added. 

Without a working mobile phone, many of society's most vulnerable people will soon be left without critical communications tools. "For seniors, it's extremely important to have a mobile device that can reach 911 in case of an emergency," he said 

"It is important that seniors have easy-to-use methods to contact people and 911 in emergencies."

Upgrade Options

The FCC offers the Lifeline Program that provides a modest monthly discount on internet and cell phone service for lower-income vulnerable Americans. 

Anecdotally, Canales said he has found some senior phone users are concerned about the phasing out of the 3G network in 2022. 

"These seniors often discuss their lack of interest in upgrading to newer technology when their current device works fine," Canales said. "However, the majority are happy to embrace new technology, so hopefully the impact can be reduced by the adoption of newer technology."

For some, a software update may be all that's required to maintain connections, Canales said, including such devices as the Google Pixel 4 and Samsung Galaxy S5. However, purchasing a replacement device will be necessary in some instances. 

McGrenary said 4G compatible flip phones are an inexpensive option for someone on a budget looking for a simple phone that will work for texting, calling, and even listening to FM radio. 

Two senior adults looking at a smartphone.

Gerber86 / Getty Images

"They may look like a phone from a bygone era, but they handle themselves pretty well, and the convenient front window makes it easy to check the time and missed calls without needing to open the flip phone," he added. 

If a cell phone is not needed to call, tablets can help for video calls and messages to friends and family, Canales said. 

Whatever device they chose, "It is important that seniors have easy-to-use methods to contact people and 911 in emergencies," he added. 

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