Verizon's free 4G phone offer shows the challenge of switching off 3G

Nokia 2720 Flip phone gets revived
(Image credit: HMD Global)

Good news! Verizon is handing out free mobile phones… if you currently have a 3G-only handset. The operator plans to switch off its 3G CDMA network at the end of the year as it seeks to reallocate all available resources to its 4G and 5G services.

While 5G and 4G are complementary technologies that will exist for many years to come – indeed many of the underlying technological upgrades that make 5G possible will improve 4G too – mobile operators around the world are eager to switch off legacy 2G and 3G.

At the end of 2021, there were just four million devices that relied on a 2G or 3G connection and many of these will be IoT devices such as smart metres that rely on 2G. It is for this reason that 2G will likely survive into the 2030s and why, for now, UK operators have only confirmed their plans to ‘sunset’ 3G.

Free 4G phones on Verizon

5G networks require a greater volume and variety of spectrum than previous generations of mobile technology and operators want to re-use finite and valuable frequencies currently allocated to 3G. 

Older networks also consume more power, carry less traffic, and require maintenance, all of which adds to operator’s running costs. And, on top of this, aging 3G equipment is using up precious physical space on a mast.

Switching off 3G seems a logical step. The last phone I owned that couldn’t connect to a 4G network was my iPhone 4. I loved the beautiful handset but by the end of 2013, it was becoming a chore to use. I struggled to get the speeds I needed for the applications I wanted to use, and, in some cases, I simply couldn’t get a signal at all in crowded central London.

I switched to a 4G-compatible iPhone 5S and never looked back and upgraded as soon as possible when 5G arrived in my area nearly a decade later. I appreciate that as a technology journalist who specialises in telecoms, I am not a typical smartphone user, but the overwhelming majority of mobile phone owners in the UK now have access to at least a 4G device.

Many consumers will automatically be upgraded to 5G via natural upgrade cycles but there are many people in the UK who are on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) tariff who are either perfectly happy with their current phone or are unaware that time is ticking on their connection.

It is this group of people that might be the crucial obstacle to switching off 3G and find out who they are might be challenging. The offer of a free phone is the obvious step – the cost of the handsets must surely outweigh the running costs of aging infrastructure – but finding out who needs one could be more challenging.

As mobile connectivity becomes more important to everyday life, it’s crucial that no one is left behind. The mobile industry must be ready to provide technology, drive awareness, and offer education as it continues to push forward into 5G and beyond. 

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.