Early next year, all of the major networks (AT&T, T-mobile, and Verizon) are going to shut down their 2G and 3G networks and move to VoLTE. But what exactly does that mean, and how will it affect you?
Mobile phone networks have gone through several generations. 1G (first generation) was analog, and used by the very first cell phones. That network shut down decades ago.
2G and 3G provided a transition to digital signals, and increased speeds for data transfer. 2G could move data at 0.1 Mbps, while 3G was around 3 Mbps.
4G (also known as LTE) began rolling out near the beginning of the smartphone era, in 2009-2010. With speeds of 100 Mbps, it was faster than 3G by quite a bit. 5G is faster still, with speeds of 20 Gbps, but isn’t widely available yet (and many people don’t have 5G-compatible phones yet).
4G has a problem, however: you can’t use data and make phone calls at the same time. If you try to make a call, your phone will drop down to 3G mode for the duration of the call. Additionally, the call quality is terrible.
VoLTE (Voice over LTE) solves both of these problems. Instead of your call going out over a traditional phone line, your call is made over the internet. Thus your phone can stay in fast 4G data mode the entire time. Additionally, by bypassing the traditional phone lines, you can have much better sound quality.
The major networks have all announced they will be shutting down their 2G and 3G networks within the next year, meaning everyone will be forced to use VoLTE.
In theory this shouldn’t be a problem, because most any phone made within the last few years is VoLTE capable.
In reality, it’s going to be a huge mess. Not only do the phones need to be VoLTE capable, but the networks need to recognize the phone as VoLTE-enabled. This is where the problem lies.
Carriers are trying to force everyone to buy a phone from them. If you have your own phone, most likely you received a notice that your phone will stop working after a certain date.
The truth is a little more hazy. Right now it’s difficult to get a straight answer from the carriers about which phones will work.
AT&T has published a list of compatible phones. However there are phones not on this list which still work.
T-mobile says any phone sold within the US market will work. What about phones for the global market, like Xiaomi? Or international versions of Motorola phones?
Verizon has been somewhat sketchy as well. Cricket Wireless (which uses Verizon’s network) has published a list of compatible phones, but there are probably others that will work as well.
Not to mention, you may need to enable VoLTE within the phone itself, and have the carrier provision your phone.
There’s no doubt that once 3G networks shut down, there will be a lot of angry customers who discover their phones no longer work.
For now, if you want to check that your phone is using VoLTE you can make a phone call. If the network status icon drops to 3G (or says something like H+ or HSPA) you are not using VoLTE.