Verizon stays with 3G… let’s unpack why

According to an article at Light Reading, Verizon no longer plans to shut off its 3G service any day now, as was previously reported here. Even though this blog is more concerned with AT&T, it’s important to look at this, why it’s happening this way, and what we can learn. So strap in, readers, and let’s take the ride together

What is 3G?

In order to answer that question, you have to put yourself in a very early-2000s mindset. Back then, cell phones were phones. You talked on them. In fact you couldn’t do much more. Some phones supported texting and some didn’t. Without full keyboards, people didn’t want to text anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal.

There were a few phones out there that supported limited data, though. There were a few schemes that used regular cell phone connections to move small amounts of data. For a world where a lot of people still used dial-up, it actually seemed kind of neat to get some sort of data on your phone. But it wasn’t really useful.

The solution for modern phones

3G solved that. 3G was a standard that let carriers leave the voice network alone and established a completely different data network that was designed to give faster connections. (And remember by faster we mean less than 1 megabit per second, which was still 20 times faster than it was.) It was called 3G because it was thought of as the third generation of mobile phone service, after AMPS, the cell service people used in the ’90s and GSM/PCS/CDMA/TDMA, the services people used in the early ’00s.

3G was still not really common until the late ’00s. The first iPhone launched without it. But once people got 3G, they never looked back. It was still dog slow but web pages were designed around that. 3G didn’t really last long in the spotlight, as it was eclipsed by 4G/LTE in the ’10s. But even 4G/LTE was thought of as data-only until the mid-’10s when you started seeing voice calls using the LTE network.

Why is 3G going away?

In the next few years, you’ll see carriers move away from 3G phones. And at this point when we say 3G phones, we mean phones that use one network for voice and the 3G network for data. Those phones are pretty hard to find now, and I think you can’t even activate one anymore on most major carriers.

3G and the voice technology that goes with it are disappearing because fewer people use it, and because those same frequencies can be used for 5G. 5G uses the same technology for voice and data, and is a lot more efficient. This means faster data speeds and clearer calls. Who wouldn’t want that?

So why is Verizon keeping 3G around?

Obviously we’re not going to get the “real” answer from them, but it’s pretty clear. Verizon is a big company. They’ve got about 120 million customers, if you can believe the internet. (AT&T has more, with about 170 million.) They probably have a lot of people with old phones out there. Those people aren’t ready to upgrade yet.

But to really understand why, you need to look at three things.

1. Verizon’s tech is really outdated.

Verizon’s voice technology is based on a standard called CDMA that was popular in the 2000s. It’s a good technology and as any Verizon user will tell you, it works better in areas where there aren’t a lot of towers. CDMA voice calls can travel further than AT&T’s GSM voice calls, and that was an advantage in the days where there wasn’t good coverage everywhere.

Verizon’s data uses LTE, which is an evolution of AT&T’s GSM standard. All carriers use LTE, but the ones who use GSM for voice have had a leg up for years. Although today, most major manufacturers can make radios that do both, for a long time it was more expensive to make a Verizon phone than an AT&T phone. Yet the phones had to sell for the same amount.

Verizon’s tech isn’t nearly as bad as that belonging to former Sprint users, who are still dealing with a mishmosh of old tech that never worked right. But T-Mobile, who bought Sprint, is committed to moving those customers into new phones quickly.

2. Carriers don’t offer cheap phones much anymore

Sure, you’ll hear about special offers, but the days when you could go to a phone store and walk out with pretty good technology for really low cost are long gone.  In most cases the best deal is a rebate you’ll get if you finance the phone and agree to return it to the carrier in a few years.

If you are looking for a specific phone, you’re probably going to pay well over $400 for it. In some cases you’ll pay as much as $1600 for a premium phone. Those numbers are going to make people think twice about the phone they have. Maybe they’ll think that they can make a go of it for another few months. This is especially true for those folks with non-smartphones, who are the most likely to have 3G at this point.

3. They’re not wrong… phones last a long time

If you’re willing to swap out a battery every two years or so, your phone can last you a long time. Even though carriers make it hard to swap out batteries, plenty of people will do it for you. So, if you’re not really unhappy with your iPhone 3G from 2009, you can still keep it much longer than you originally anticipated.

Phones have become generational. Maybe you get a new one and give yours to a parent, sibling, or partner. The same phone can kick around a family for a while without being replaced. This means there are a lot of older phones out there. Verizon probably just realized that it was too soon and it would cost too much to give people the incentive to replace them.

Don’t be left behind when everyone else grabs onto 5G

Verizon may be dragging its heels, but let’s be honest… 3G is yesterday’s tech and 5G is here. So when you’re ready to dump that old flip phone, call the folks at Signal Connect and get a phone that will last as long as you want it to. The number is 888-233-7563.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.