Helping my family member get a "free" 4G phone from T-Mobile was surprisingly complicated, especially with the wireless carrier making very clear that its 3G network was retiring in weeks. They did receive a text message stating they were eligible for a new 4G-compatible OnePlus phone -- but unlike other carriers that are handing out free 4G phones -- T-Mobile required a trade-in of a device that was in good condition.
That requirement is what made it difficult. My family member has been using an iPhone 5S first purchased in 2014, and the phone's screen is steadily separating itself from the rest of the phone's body. This iPhone 5S was originally purchased for Verizon and wasn't compatible with T-Mobile's LTE network. The phone is otherwise rarely used, as this family member prefers to use an iPad at home so we have them on a very cheap $3-per-month prepaid plan.
Should I attempt to trade in the clearly damaged iPhone? Should we dig out some other functioning phone and trade that in? And since we are ultimately paying for service, what happens if we can't get this family member a new device ahead of the 3G shutdown?
These complications led me to wonder wider than just this T-Mobile experience, and I reached out to the three major carriers, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, to find out how these carriers are assisting customers who may need more time before moving to a newer phone.
Ending 3G networks can be a good thing
While the shutdown of 3G networks does disconnect older phones and devices from access to cellular networks, it does create several opportunities to improve phone functionality across basic phones and smartphones.
Anshel Sag, a mobility analyst from Moor Insights and Strategy, noted that moving customers away from these less secure devices also moves them toward better calling experiences like higher-quality voice-over-LTE audio calls.
"I do think the consumer should have a certain level of choice but at the same time the straggling users can become a burden on the rest of the user base in terms of access to new services," Sag said. Those enhanced VoLTE calls, for instance, are now available across both smartphones and 4G-capable basic phones.
And even though Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are openly developing their 5G networks, customers who move to 4G-only devices don't need to worry about being forced onto another phone in the near future. Sag estimated that 4G LTE networks have plenty of life to go.
"We're probably another 10 years until the 4G shutdown," Sag said. He noted that radio waves previously used for 3G can also change to improve faster 5G networks as the carriers work to improve their coverage.
While Sag noted there's always going to be a percentage of customers who choose not to move to a newer device, he said that it remains in the carriers' best interest to either help supply new devices or to stop billing.
"These customers are legacy customers that they've had a very long time as a function of how long 3G has been around," Sag said.
T-Mobile (and Sprint's) network shutdown
T-Mobile is the most recent carrier to retire its 3G networks, having turned off its 3G UMTS network on July 1. In addition to that network, T-Mobile also sunset Sprint's 3G network on March 31. T-Mobile does still have an older 2G network that is slated for retirement, but no clear dates have been given just yet.
A T-Mobile spokesperson said that affected customers were notified and are still eligible for a free replacement device by trading in their older 3G phone.
"Customers with 3G-dependent phones who have not yet taken action to upgrade are still eligible to receive a free replacement by trading in their older 3G device. The vast majority of those with UMTS devices who have not yet upgraded are covered by T-Mobile's 2G GSM network and continue to receive service," the spokesperson said.
T-Mobile also pointed us to its network evolution customer support page, which goes into further depth about efforts to reach customers and the dates that each previous network reached retirement.
AT&T has stopped charging customers who haven't upgraded
AT&T's 3G network was shuttered on Feb. 22. In the lead up to the shutdown, the carrier posted on its support page that affected customers were contacted and may have received free phones or SIM cards in the mail in order to maintain their coverage.
In the event an AT&T customer didn't activate a 4G-compatible device, they will no longer be charged for service.
"If a customer's billing cycle ended after the 3G service cut-off date, we provided a credit and they will not receive additional bills," AT&T said in a statement to CNET.
Verizon's shutdown will be last, and there's time to get a free phone
Verizon's 3G network will turn off on Dec. 31, leaving months of time for customers to move to a device that is compatible with at least its 4G LTE network.
Verizon is in the process of sending out free 4G-capable phones to affected customers, which will be older flip phones made by TCL, Nokia and Orbic. The devices don't require any trade-in and are being proactively sent. Customers who don't want one of these phones can call customer service to decline the offer.
Should a customer decide that they don't want to move their service onto a 4G device, Verizon will stop charging once the 3G network is shut down.
"If a customer decides to stay on the 3G device (despite extra urging by call agents or retail reps), then that device would stop working at sunset. The customer would not be billed once they are disconnected from the network," a Verizon rep said in an email to CNET.
If you need more time to switch phones, you can still use your phone to backup important data
After 3G networks are completely turned off, the phone you have won't be completely useless. While it can't connect to cellular data, you might still have limited access to features over Wi-Fi such as access to your contacts and Wi-Fi calling, where it's supported.
While exact processes will differ depending on whether you are using a 3G-only smartphone or basic phone, you should be able to make sure your important contacts, calendars and notes that live on the phone are backed up to another service or saved so they can be loaded into another device later.
Many 3G phones are likely, and so while the device might work it is critical to make sure that it isn't the only place where important information is saved.
Solving my family's transition without help from T-Mobile
Returning to my family member's 3G transition, I decided to bring both the damaged iPhone 5S and a long-retired 2014 Moto E as a backup to T-Mobile's store. Both phones were denied, and when we asked the representative about other options, he told me he couldn't say anything.
The experience was understandably disappointing and seemed to leave us with just a few weeks to decide whether it'd be worthwhile to buy a phone that we knew would only be sparingly used.
We ultimately resolved this by finding another family member's retired iPhone SE and swapping the SIM card to that, but the experience made it quite obvious that another family might not be able to just luck out upon a new handset.
T-Mobile's spokesperson told me that the store's denial isn't the carrier's policy, apologized for that experience and offered to resolve the issue through its Customer Care team.