In today’s climate of nonstop evolving technology, businesses continuously search for the latest devices to keep up with their customers — and the competition.
With the sunsetting of 3G tech on the horizon, fleets using soon-to-be-outdated tech must upgrade their mobile devices or face potential communication roadblocks, including customer service disruption and loss of business.
With new mobile communications standards fast approaching, an estimated 7.5 million Internet of Things (IoT) devices based primarily on 3G are still in use by all fleet types in the U.S. alone, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.
Add to that: 5G tech is looming, with a 5G network for commercial transportation a few years away.
“As the networks evolve, so do services,” said Michael Maddux, vice president of product at Verizon Connect, which offers fleet management software and solutions. “Each development is designed to help improve fleet operations and safety.”
Why can’t fleets keep using 3G if they want to? Because mobile carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, want to free up the radio spectrum for faster and more efficient 4G LTE devices — for both fleets and private citizens.
“The network sunsets are driven by wireless carriers and the need to repurpose spectrum and capacity to 4G, and increasingly 5G, networks and impact any 3G-powered device, regardless of the vendor or manufacturer,” said John Binder, director of wireless operations for Trimble’s Transportation division, which provides onboard computing and mobile communications systems. “This sunset is part of the wireless carriers’ continued investment in 4G Long Term Evolution (or LTE) networks, which provide faster and more comprehensive coverage.”
What Does 4G LTE & 5G Do?
For fleets, the move from 3G to 4G LTE, and eventually 5G, will result in faster communication between people, products, and networks with speedier response times, increased system connectivity, and higher data rates than previously seen.
Wireless communication industry trade association CTIA thinks 5G will revolutionize every industry from agriculture to transportation thanks to increased performance and productivity, leading to more efficient use of a company’s resources.
Additional benefits of the newer networks and technologies allow companies and individuals to send even more data than the older 3G network with more efficiency and at a lower cost.
When 5G finally starts to see more use, customers can expect a more significant increase in speeds and a lower latency, allowing for an even faster, more real-time connection.
What Should Fleets Expect?
Even with the sunset of 3G within sight, fleets have a little time before their 3G devices will no longer work.
“Fleets will be able to continue using their devices for some time to come, and we will continue to offer customers best-in-class devices on the latest technology and our 4G LTE network,” Maddux explained.
But fleets deciding to hold off on moving from 3G to 4G networks in the near-term could face a risky proposition, as mobile carriers won’t guarantee the quality of their 3G networks past their set cutoff dates — with some mobile carriers cutting off service as soon as the end of 2019 and others, such as AT&T, expecting to do so by 2022.
“Planning for device replacements can vary in time depending on the business’ operations and fleet size,” Maddux stated. “But starting the process sooner rather than later can have less of an impact on business, regardless of fleet size.”
Lisa Park, AVP of IoT Solutions at AT&T, which provides fleets IoT logistics solutions, echoed Maddux. “If you’re not prepared when 3G networks go dark, it will affect you, your clients, your suppliers, and your competitors,” she said.
AT&T is working with its fleet customers ahead of the 3G sunset to ensure proper planning, testing, and implementation of fleet-solution upgrades.
“Some of our small business clients prefer to use simple, lower cost plug-and-play products, while larger, multinational clients opt for highly customizable solutions spanning various geographical locations,” Park stated.
It’s never too early to update fleet devices to the latest technology, according to Scott Sutarik, associate VP of Commercial Vehicle Solutions at telematics company Geotab. Sutarik recommends planning for the transition a year or two before the actual drop-dead date.
“Also, be aware that the timing of the sunset for 3G may vary by carrier, so it’s important you work closely with your vendors to know when you will be affected,” he added.
For fleets with aftermarket telematics devices, it’s most important to understand which networks those devices use and what coverage for those devices will look like once the 3G network is potentially no longer available, explained Mike Ross, director of Product Management at fleet technology company Samsara.
“Because Samsara produces aftermarket telematics devices, the main determinant for how a fleet experiences the 3G network sunset will depend on the telematics device itself, not the vehicle type,” Ross explained.
The Transition From AOBRDs
At the same time 3G sunsets, the nation’s fleets must switch from automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRDs), which use 3G, to electronic logging devices (ELDs), which primarily use 4G (though there are some 3G ELDs out there).
In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which required the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to develop a rule that would mandate ELDs. Fast forward to 2019, and companies are running out of time to switch over to the newer ELD technology — they have until Dec. 16, 2019, to do so.
About 3 million ELDs and telematics systems, including AOBRDs, are currently in service, of which close to half are AOBRDs. The clock is ticking for fleets to come into compliance with the new ELD mandate.
Impact of 3G Sunset on Fleets
For light- and medium-duty truck, van, and SUV fleets, evolving from 3G to 4G could require a complete tech overhaul, including replacing the entire tracking and in-vehicle communication system. Or the solution could be more straightforward.
“The sunset of 3G, along with the AOBRD to ELD conversion, will have a significant impact on any fleet dependent on hardware that has 3G embedded,” said Paul Schwartz, VP of technology solutions at transportation safety and compliance company J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. “Depending on the type of equipment, rectifying the issue could entail something as invasive as new onboard telematics or something as straightforward as replacing the 3G device if the impacted device is not a part of the installed telematics system.”
If your fleet has any onboard equipment that connects to older 3G networks, you may begin to see a degradation or “sunset” in coverage starting later this year, according to Binder of Trimble.
“While there is no expectation that these 3G networks will suddenly go dark, the important takeaway, once sunset begins, is that there is no longer a guarantee of the quality of service and coverage,” he said.
A gradual shutdown process may pose significant challenges to any fleet that relies on code-division multiple access (CDMA) networks to communicate with drivers and vehicles, as well as to collect essential data related to fleet safety, compliance, and overall performance, Binder added. “This degradation will eventually render these 3G-powered devices obsolete and will require the purchase of 4G LTE-connected onboard equipment,” he said.
It’s clear that an early transition to 4G LTE will require significant planning to get ahead of the upcoming sunset.
“Many U.S.-based fleets have some form of connectivity to their vehicles, and it’s important to know what 3G connectivity you have and how it will affect your operations, which can vary by suppliers that you use,” Sutarik said.
“In working closely with the Verizon network team, we were able to extend the 3G hardware deadline for Verizon Connect customers to the end of 2022,” said Greg Jones, director of hardware product strategy at Verizon Connect. “This is to allow us to better meet our customers’ needs with a swap-out schedule that makes sense for each of them individually. When we come across a situation that has the potential to disrupt a customer’s business, we want to get as far ahead of that as possible, and establish timelines that ease their pain points and take some of the stress out of the situation.”
Saying Goodbye to 3G
While 3G won’t stop working overnight, fleets should keep in mind that the clock is ticking. While 5G is not expected to replace 4G LTE for an estimated ten years, fleets should prepare far in advance for future upgrades.
“The best step is for a fleet to take an inventory of all devices used for communications, from IoT hubs to GPS repeaters,” Schwartz advised. “After the inventory is completed, a final review can be done to ensure there are no gaps in the solution.”
The bottom line for fleets: Being aware of their total communication layer will be critical during the 3G sunset.