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AT&T customers have been receiving a worrisome email or text message from the carrier indicating that their phones are on the brink of no longer being supported, and that has caused quite an outcry. The issue, AT&T says, is that it plans to shut down its 3G network, meaning all calls will have to be made over VoLTE (aka HD Voice instead. And because only certain phones work with AT&T's VoLTE system, all other non-approved phones will no longer be able to make calls when that shutdown happens.
But there's no need to fret — this warning from AT&T is incredibly premature, and your calling service will be retained until at least the end of 2021. Here's what's really going on.
Why (and when) is AT&T moving from 3G calling to VoLTE?
To put things simply, AT&T is trying to make the most of its spectrum (how many lanes it has available for traffic). Each carrier has a limited amount of spectrum in which to deploy 3G, 4G and 5G service, and keeping any amount of it locked up providing 3G to users when it could be better utilized for 4G and 5G is an inefficient use of resources. So AT&T is planning to shut down its 3G network in early 2022, which will necessitate all calls moving to 4G.
Now, this isn't a new idea. Verizon and T-Mobile have already made similar shifts away from 3G to an all-LTE calling network, so they can reuse precious spectrum holdings to deploy their new 5G networks. This is a completely normal thing to do, but it's a big shift — and that's why AT&T is getting so far out ahead of the actual shutdown with its messaging.
AT&T provided the following statement to Android Police when asked about these customer emails, owning up to the fact that it should've been clearer with the messaging:
This email was one of many planned to keep customers informed about the shutdown of our 3G network in early 2022. It should have included the date that certain devices would no longer be supported. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused and will be more clear in future updates.
Does my phone support AT&T VoLTE?
Here's the rub: it isn't clear exactly which devices support AT&T's HD Voice service. The only sure-fire way to know that your phone supports VoLTE on AT&T is to buy a phone from AT&T (or have bought one in the last few years). That's annoying, because we know there are huge benefits to buying phones unlocked, and AT&T's branded phones are often filled with bloatware and other customizations.
There's no sure-fire way to know if your unlocked phone will support AT&T VoLTE.
AT&T publishes a list of "phones that work on our network", with specific model numbers of devices that it has certified for use, but it actually isn't clear if that also means that each of those devices supports HD Voice. (For example, the Galaxy S4 Mini, from 2013, is on the list.)
The unlocked phone situation is annoying because some unlocked phones do support AT&T's VoLTE, even though AT&T doesn't say they do. Other unlocked phones are known to have all of the correct technology to use VoLTE (i.e. they're unlocked models of the exact phone AT&T sells) but are disallowed from doing so by AT&T. You can find hundreds of pages of forum discussions about which unlocked phones do and don't support VoLTE on AT&T — with little consensus.
If you have an unlocked phone on AT&T and are curious as to whether it supports HD Voice, you can get more information by using a network information app — like this one, this one or this one. Install the app, disconnect from Wi-Fi, place a call, and while still on the call check to see if the app shows it taking place over LTE. This isn't a guarantee that your phone is/isn't compatible, but it's a good start. Additionally, you can call AT&T customer service and ask if your phone is provisioned for HD Voice — lower-level customer service help may not know, but you can get lucky.
Do I need to upgrade my AT&T phone now?
No, you don't.
AT&T knows how many phones are on its network still making 3G calls still, and that's probably a very large number. Therefore it wants to start pushing people to upgrade to a VoLTE-capable phone now, rather than waiting until the last moment with the 3G shutdown nearing. Hence the very premature messages about phone incompatibility. But the truth is, your phone will continue to work and make calls until the last moment, so there's no need to upgrade your phone today.
Now obviously if you do upgrade your phone today, and you buy it from AT&T, it will support VoLTE and you'll be set for the future transition away from 3G (though that's still a long ways off). You'll also be able to actually take advantage of VoLTE, which provides higher-quality voice calls, in the meantime.
Realistically, this is a problem for you to think about a year from now, in the second half of 2021, when the 3G shutdown is actually imminent. Your phone will continue to work just fine until then.