Concerns about access to Triple Zero emergency services have led Telstra to delay the shutdown of its outdated 3G mobile network by two months, giving tens of thousands of Australians extra time to upgrade 3G smartphones, EFT machines, and other devices.

Having been scheduled for this year since 2019, the shutdown comes as Telstra and its rivals pivot towards contemporary 5G networks – and discuss long-term plans for its 6G successor – with plans to repurpose 3G mobile frequencies to free up more bandwidth for newer, faster, and more versatile mobile communications technologies.

Since they were introduced in Australia in 2003, 3G mobile networks have continued to power standalone EFTPOS payment terminals, healthcare equipment, machinery, and other devices even as smartphone and tablet users transitioned to 4G and 5G.

Those devices will cease to work after 31 August, when Telstra will turn off its 3G mobile network for good – followed quickly afterwards by Optus.

Vodafone and TPG have already shut down their 3G networks.

“We know some of our customers are still working through the steps they need to take to upgrade their devices,” Telstra wrote in explaining its decision to push back the original 30 June switch-off date.

Devices that are 3G only; do not support Voice over 4G (VoLTE); or are 4G-enabled but hardwired to use 3G as a backup for emergency calls, must all be upgraded by 31 August to stay connected.

Customers who need to upgrade 3G mobiles, but have not yet done so, will hear a message when they make an outgoing call.

All customers, Telstra said, can check whether they need to upgrade by texting ‘3’ to 3498.

To ensure that customers aren’t left without connectivity, the company has been steadily expanding its 4G coverage to be equivalent to its 3G network – a goal that the company said it is “on track to meet” by the shutdown date.

“Closing Australia’s 3G networks is a significant step that will lead to improved connectivity for the nation,” Telstra said, promising that the change “will mean a big leap forward for mobile connectivity across Australia.”

Ensuring continuity of service

Telstra’s decision to delay its 3G switch-off comes on the heels of a scathing report into the delivery of Triple Zero emergency services, which were so significantly impacted by last November’s major Optus outage that the government recently committed to a major reform of the system.

Although plans to disconnect Australia’s 3G networks by mid-2024 were initially laid down by Scott Morrison’s Liberal government, current Opposition communications spokesperson David Coleman wasted no time in blaming the current Albanese government for the delay – which he said “underscores Minister Rowland’s hapless handling of the key issue that some 4G phones will not work after 3G shutdown.”

In March, Rowland established a working group to support the switchover, with a focus on 4G capable phones that were designed to use 3G for Triple Zero calls due to the network’s relatively larger coverage when 4G was still new.

Such devices will continue to make voice and data calls after 31 August, but an estimated 740,000 customers – typically those with older 4G phones, devices purchased overseas, or grey-market imports that are not configured correctly for Australia’s network – will find out at the worst possible moment that they are unable to make Triple Zero calls.

“Supporting Australians’ access to Triple Zero is critical,” Rowland said, promising that the government “will continue to monitor this issue closely and consider options under law if warranted in the public interest.”