Millions of 3G devices including vending machines and pay stations to stop working on August 31

It’s like the Y2K bug, but for real this time, and it could wipe out everything from vending machines to mall kids’ rides to laundromats to parking garages to security cameras and EFTPOS terminals.

Those old enough will remember the hysteria in the run-up to the turn of the millennium over impending technological calamity.

The fear was that as the number buried in the code of countless computer systems around the world changed from “99” to “00” – an oversight on the part of early programmers to use two digits instead of four – it would unleash the hell. failing that, planes fall from the sky.

This never happened, but in just over two months, large numbers of Australian consumers and businesses are facing their own mini-Y2K, many without even knowing it.

On August 31, Telstra and Optus will both switch off their aging 3G mobile networks and businesses will be warned “not to be a casualty of 3G”.

In addition to old phones, there are large numbers – it’s hard to know exactly how many – of other 3G devices “silently embedded” in businesses, homes and farms that will “suddenly die and people will wonder what’s going on”.

“This is too late a trigger point, because that would hurt businesses,” said Bruce Billson, ombudsman for small businesses and family businesses.

Billson says the change will also have a big impact on rural and regional communities, affecting the environmental monitoring technology used by many farmers, as well as detection equipment.

Affected devices may include “smartwatches, wearables and IoT devices such as EFTPOS terminals, industrial routers, scanners, security monitoring devices, telematics, asset tracking tools, environmental monitoring tools, security cameras, medical alarms, response to personal emergencies and home security”. alarms/devices,” according to the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA).

Australians have been urged to check their devices and, if affected, contact the manufacturer or service provider to update them.

“It’s the kind of quiet piece of technology that most people don’t think twice about because their primary focus is functionality, not the back-end communications spectrum used,” Billson said.

“People probably don’t think about it at all, about the old EFTPOS machines and things like that. This is the risk of losing customers and for some it could be a fundamental and central capability.”

The industry-wide decision by all three Australian telcos to shut down the 20-year-old 3G network is aimed at allowing operators to increase capacity for next-generation networks.

Vodafone already shut down its 3G network in January.

Last week, 2GB host Ben Fordham revealed that the radio station became aware of the problem when the office vending machine stopped working.

“It turns out that all unattended retail sites rely on the 3G network,” Fordham said.

“So we’re talking about vending machines, parking lots, car washes, laundromats, that kind of thing. All facilities that require a card reader are affected and, if they use the 3G network, they will need to be replaced. But many companies have no idea…so it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that’s an understatement. I think the total will be tens of millions of dollars. And this is where things get complicated. Companies that have a 3G card reader need to replace it, but replacement card readers are becoming so popular because everyone needs them, but there is a shortage.”

Robbie Allison, founder and CEO of vending company QualityVend, told Fordham it was a “huge cost” to upgrade the equipment.

“Between the cost of the reader, the cost to replace it and the time it takes for the worker to be away, that’s about $650,” he said.

“Let’s say you spent $10,000 on a vending machine, you’re hoping to make a 10% profit, that’s $1000, then in reality more than half of the profit on the average vending machine this year will simply go to replacing the reader so that they can take the same money they took yesterday. This will have an impact on the business.”

It estimated that “100,000 touchpoints across Australia” will be affected.

Mr Allison said he had already noticed a 5-10% drop in revenue compared to last year due to the growing number of malfunctioning readers.

“In the last couple of years people have bought some [4G readers] as they progress, but at the moment there is a huge mass of them that need to be exchanged,” he said.

“It’s one huge macro problem on 1000 small touchpoints.”

The high cost of upgrading 3G equipment will be “significant and at a time when small businesses, family businesses and agricultural businesses are operating on tight margins and ever-increasing input costs,” Billson said.

But the Ombudsman said shutting down 3G was the right decision and had been “many years in the making”.

“Spectrum is a scarce public resource, so the need to use it wisely and to its highest and best use is important to the nation and the economy,” he said.

Surveyors Australia, which represents more than 400 surveying companies, has previously requested government assistance with the switch.

“When we started talking about this topic with Telstra and the Government last year, the response was quite generalized and along the lines of ‘everyone has had enough time to change’,” the peak body told members beginning of this month. “While we hope so [two-month delay] helps take some of the pressure off to prepare, we will continue to advocate for financial support for this unplanned cost to your businesses.”

Despite the switch-off being announced in 2019, hundreds of thousands of Australians have yet to give up their mobile phones, which will soon be bricked.

Concerns have previously been raised that more than a million people, even with older 4G phones, may be unable to contact emergency services as they automatically switch to 3G when they dial triple zero.

Telstra, which had been planning to switch off its network on June 30, announced earlier this month that it would be pushed back to the end of August to give customers more time to upgrade their devices, sending a message reminder text.

The country’s largest telecom company revealed in April that more than 110,000 customers had yet to upgrade despite the looming deadline.

At the time, the opposition seized on the news to accuse Communications Minister Michelle Rowland of bungling the move.

“This decision highlights Minister Rowland’s unfortunate handling of the key issue that some 4G phones will not work after 3G is shut down,” opposition communications spokesman David Coleman said.

“The Minister set up his ‘working group’ only in March. If the Minister had acted professionally and quickly, there would have been plenty of time to address the issue before the 3G shutdown.”

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts said the federal government should step in and reverse the shutdown altogether.

“I am again calling on telcos to abandon 3G network shutdowns until they can assure us that no Australian will be worse off or unable to call triple zero,” Roberts said.

“This slight delay [by Telstra] it does nothing to address the million 4G cell phones that will not be able to call triple-0 when the 3G network is turned off.”

He added that the delay “does nothing to address the approximately three million devices including vital medical alerts, agricultural infrastructure, small business EFTPOS machines and regional Australians are still completely dependent on the 3G network”.

“The Senate inquiry into the 3G shutdown will not report until November 30, closing it before then is a challenge to the Senate and the people’s elected representatives,” he said.

“It’s time to [Ms Rowland] intervene. Telecommunications companies are obviously intent on leaving Australians high and dry.”

Andrew Sheridan, Optus’ vice president of government and regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the telco “continues to communicate directly with customers who we believe will be impacted by the shutdown of our 3G network starting in September 2024 to strongly encourage them to change their device”.

“This closure will include both customers who still rely only on 3G devices, as well as those who may be using a 4G device that may also rely on the 3G network,” it said.

“We are providing additional support to vulnerable customers. We encourage customers who have already been contacted by Optus to update their devices in advance to ensure they are not affected by this shutdown. Optus engineers have prepared for this closure by improving 4G and 5G coverage.”

Telstra and Optus customers can check if their mobile is affected by texting 3 to 3498.

Minister Rowland and Telstra have been contacted for comment.

frank.chung@news.com.au

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