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Fleets’ data service reliability may drop as telecoms transition away from 3G

Major carriers are beginning to transition to 4G networks; fleets using 3G devices could see performance start slipping

Major carriers AT&T, Verizon and others are starting to transition their cellular networks to 4G. That means fleets running 3G devices could soon start seeing performance slip. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Any fleet that delayed adopting electronic logging devices until right before the deadline was faced with a lack of inventory and support delays as providers became overwhelmed. A similar scenario could potentially repeat itself as AT&T, Verizon and other carriers prepare to shut down their 2G and 3G cellular networks.

Verizon was among the first carriers to announce a shutdown date — Dec. 31, 2020 — although the company has now pushed that back to December 2022. AT&T said it will shut down its networks in February 2022. As of those dates, any carrier operating a device that uses 2G or 3G networks and is not 4G LTE-compatible will see those devices cease operations.

“Basically, anything that potentially uses the cellular network for a connection could need an upgrade,” Matt Deichman, senior vice president of customer success and IT at Zonar Systems, told FreightWaves. “We certainly encourage our customers to plan in advance, set a date and work backwards from there. Our advice to our customers is to be fully transitioned by Thanksgiving of next year, which will give you some extra time to [work out the kinks].”

T-Mobile and Sprint have not announced specific time frames for shutting down their networks.

3G networks have been mostly replaced by LTE and now 5G networks, but technologies that were designed to run on these older networks are still in use. As a result, some businesses could see significant technology upgrade costs or risk losing access to critical data.

According to Affirmed Networks, a cloud-network provider, the reason for the phaseout of 3G is multifaceted, but it is primarily to reuse the spectrum capacity for 5G while not having to maintain multiple networks.

Newer devices likely not affected

For businesses, the good news is if they have purchased devices in the past couple of years, the chances are pretty strong they are compatible with the newer 4G and 5G networks. Most devices made today are designed for 5G networks, which offer more robust communication features and faster upload and download speeds with the promise of more to come.

According to an AT&T white paper, businesses switching to 4G/5G technologies benefit from “spectral efficiency, higher network capacity, improved cost efficiency, and increased bandwidth for data-hungry applications as well as lower latency and energy efficiency on low-power, low-bandwidth applications.”

The white paper, produced for AT&T by consultancy James Brehm & Associates and published early this year, found there are 125 million cellular IoT devices deployed worldwide, with 53.1% of those running on either 2G or 3G networks.

Deichman said there is concern that fleets that wait to upgrade their devices could face similar delays to those experienced by late adopters of ELDs. It is uncertain how many devices in the transportation space are affected, but “if you own a big rig and own telematics and that system uses cellular technology, you could be in that transition state. A lot of it depends on when you bought it,” he said.

Zonar, which has already transitioned about 70% of its customers, Deichman said, has been proactive in educating customers of the coming changes. The company has not shipped a 3G device since April 2018.

3G smartphones could impact ELD use

It is possible, Deichman said, that owner-operators or smaller fleets running ELDs on their smartphones could be impacted if that phone is older and not 4G/5G capable.

Device security is the top reason companies cited in the AT&T survey for not having switched to 4G/5G devices, but cost also plays a prominent role. AT&T found that 35% of businesses are unaware of the costs associated with a migration.

Deichman noted that the carriers would begin transitioning their services before the shut-off dates, and as a result, fleets could see “blackout” areas, degradation of service, or slow transmission of data as 3G towers are shut down throughout 2021.

“We’ll be able to work with our customers and [let them know] they have a black spot in an area,” Deichman said, pointing to a school bus fleet in Colorado that saw this exact scenario unfold. “It’s really important for our customers to understand it’s not just a flip of the switch; they will see a slow degradation of [performance].”

AT&T advises selecting the right partners and understanding what is needed to complete a migration. In some cases, simply switching modems could be all that is needed, rather than wholesale replacement of devices.

Start checking devices

Specific to transportation, many providers are advising customers to research and consider updates if necessary. Geotab said customers should check installed devices to determine how many are operating on 3G networks. If replacement devices or upgrades are needed, it’s time to craft a plan. For fleets with assets all around the country, it will take time if replacement devices or modems need to be installed.

SkyBitz is also encouraging technology users to review their situation.

“In addition to upgrading your hardware devices, your solution provider should work with you on upgrading your service plans,” the company wrote. “They should help identify a strategy for managing your installations and integration upgrades, upgrading additional equipment such as tablets or phones, and coming up with a plan to address any additional monitoring needs.”

SkyBitz noted that many businesses likely have a mix of devices that utilize 3G and 4G LTE. Those using 3G will no longer work unless the network carriers implement extensions of the services. The company said those that wait to upgrade devices could be faced with a potential backlog of equipment or additional “rush fees” to complete the conversion.

Even though the deadlines seem far off at this point, Deichman said carriers “need a sense of urgency” to avoid issues in acquiring compatible devices and installing those devices. In Zonar’s case, upgrading the device is as simple as unplugging three wires and plugging in the new device, but Deichman noted the time associated with this process for fleets with vehicles spread out across the country.

Truck availability concerns

“There’s no question the hardest part of this process is truck availability,” he said. “The fleets that have depots or facilities can [pre-position trucks]. Those without need to make arrangements to have the truck available.”

Deichman advised fleets to reach out to their telematics provider and get an understanding on whether their current devices are 4G/5G-compatible and, if not, how many devices need to be replaced.

“[We] work with them to put together a plan and try to pick a date that you as a customer would like to be transitioned,” he said. “Knowing what you have available and what needs to be upgraded is the first step.”

Deichman said the industry needs to be educated on the coming changes and be prepared.

“It’s going to catch some people by surprise no matter how much planning we do,” he said.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]