3G switch-off: the hidden dangers for older Brits

Chris Millington, Managing Director of Emporia Telecom UK & Ireland, considers the impact of the 3G switch-off that has already started on older mobile users. 

As Britain’s 3G network switch-off plays out through this year and into next, the industry will look to this time as a positive step out of the past and into times of better connectivity. While the focus on 4G and 5G infrastructure indicates exciting times to come, this change holds a hidden impact on our older population. I fear this will only become apparent once it is too late.

We will start to witness vulnerable people being put in danger as they are disconnected from using their existing 3G mobiles. Many of these people will be elderly and rely on this technology to communicate with family and friends. If they don’t act now, many network operators will look back on this time and regret not offering better support for this important customer group through these changes. The target audience of many mobile marketers does not naturally include the +65 year-old segment.  Without significant change in mindset, this older group will be overlooked. It will therefore become increasingly important to consider how these customers will be impacted by the switch-off, and specific strategies will be needed.

We will see the switch-off ramp up over the next 18 months. EE was the first to set the wheels in motion earlier this year, and has begun gradually shutting off 3G. Vodafone followed shortly after, starting with Plymouth and Basingstoke and continuing with Hull, Oxford, and Greater London in June. By the end of 2023, it plans to have finished the process. Three plans to have turned off its network by the end of 2024, while O2 is yet to announce its strategy.

As customers use mobile and wireless internet more and more, this big switch-off is vital to drive investment and direct resources towards faster 4G and new 5G connectivity. Networks will be able to focus on improving these more efficient networks leading to improved reliability and coverage across the UK. This step marks an important milestone in our digital progress – however, networks have a moral responsibility to ensure they are supporting all their customers through this journey, or this achievement may become tainted with more sinister outcomes.

The hidden impacts on retirees
In a recent research report, CCS Insight found that older generations are the most likely to be affected by 3G network closures. According to ONS, 18.6 per cent of our population is aged 65 years or older. That’s more than 11m people – a massive customer segment that operators aren’t paying enough attention to. Elderly people generally keep their devices for many years, meaning that most will still use a 3G feature phone or an older 3G smartphone that family members have handed up to them.

BT has previously stated that there are between 2m and 3m people using 3G handsets across all UK mobile networks – a large portion of this group will be over 65 years old. Because this group will rely on 3G for emergency contact, and many of them may be completely unaware of the upcoming switch-off. Those who have not been notified or assisted will suddenly be left cut off, confused and vulnerable. The plan for addressing this needs to be very carefully considered to ensure the safety of this group.

As we know, many of this cohort don’t have home broadband, so those holding on to older devices may also be relying on 3G data to access the internet. These retirees will likely either use 3G-only devices, or hold legacy 3G plans from Orange or T-Mobile, for example. Some may even be set up on 3G-only mobile broadband devices as a portable alternative to wi-fi. Many will become stressed as they suddenly lose access to online services and utilities that are instrumental to their daily lives – such as prescriptions, grocery deliveries, banking, parking apps and email to name a few. In addition to essentials, communication with family and friends, including messaging, social media and video calls will also be lost.

With the loss of 3G connectivity, older devices will simply revert to legacy 2G networks for calls and, in theory, 4G and 5G devices will be left unaffected. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached a stage where this is the case, and I feel the rush to switch off is premature. In its current stage of development, 5G is unable to carry voice for calls, meaning the only option will be 4G VoLTE – which is concerning, meaning that when making a normal mobile call, the network switches back to 4G to use VoLTE. When considering the whole market, we find that many MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) dont yet have VoLTE from their MNO network infrastructure partners. Of course, for Three customers, there is no legacy 2G network to fall back on at all. As the name suggests, Three started as a data-focused, 3G-only network in 2003.

Stepping back a generation of technology will also lead to a significant loss in voice quality. It is common for many older people to suffer from hearing impairment and to struggle with the quality of voice calls – using 2G again will significantly impact these users. This will add another layer of stress and widen the digital divide. What’s more, people who do not access the internet and only rely on 3G for calls and texts may never even realise that their connection has been downgraded and will simply be left isolated.

So, what needs to be done?
Right now, networks have published standard guidelines for navigating the 3G switch-off, but we haven’t seen anyone take the extra step to really focus on the mature customer segment.

This group will not make the change as seamlessly as the younger generations will, and it is short-sighted to assume they will. Resistance and difficulties will be seen navigating the process of upgrading to a newer device. What’s more, those that are set up for internet on a single 3G device will lose the ability to research or order replacement devices. Developers and marketers should be wary of disengaged customers as older users fail to understand the switch-off.

It is important for service providers to offer support and resources to help everyone with the mass-market transition to 4G and 5G adoption. This step forward will empower all age groups to take advantage of higher quality calls and video chats, faster internet, and features including the UK’s new emergency alerts. However, there is a lot of work to do. I would love to see more senior-targeted campaigns from networks and retailers really looking to address these serious issues. Time is of the essence and there is a risk to life of not doing enough.

Manufacturers are also key players and are responsible for addressing this issue in a way that networks cannot. At Emporia, we’ve invested in a comprehensive VoLTE portfolio of feature phones that incorporate settings for all UK networks – meaning they are ready to work with any VoLTE 4G SIM from day one, and easy to use for all age groups.

The whole industry must play a part in a multi-faceted approach ensuring that no senior is left excluded, disconnected or feeling vulnerable due to technological progression.