Thousands of Aussies still using 3G personal medical alarms, ignoring pleas to upgrade before switch-off

Tens of thousands of older Australians could still use personal medical alerts that rely on 3G, less than two months before the network is permanently shut down and the devices stop working.

CareAlert SmartDialler’s Darren Steele said his company is still struggling to contact thousands of customers with older models to alert them to the potentially “life-threatening” situation.

“Just for our business, we would have probably 3,000 3G units on the market right now that will stop working,” Steele said.

CareAlert is one of about 10 major medical alert providers in Australia and Steele suggested others were having the same problem.

“That’s 30,000 to 40,000 people who would still have a 3G alert,” he estimated.

“We are using a lot of resources right now to try to contact these people but it’s not easy. We’re doing everything to reach these people: emailing, texting, lettering, trying to call, but you’re dealing with seniors and they just don’t understand.

“They’re not tech savvy enough to understand what 3G is and what 4G is.”

Telstra and Optus will both switch off their aging 3G mobile networks at the end of August, with the companies previously warned that millions of devices – not just mobile phones – will suddenly “give up the ghost”.

Medical alarms, typically a pendant or watch, monitor for sudden movements such as possible falls and alert the wearer’s emergency contacts or a 24-hour call center, depending on the device.

Mr. Steele said his company began trying to contact customers about the upgrade last year.

“We recently ramped up the process, because we’re not getting the response we really want,” he said.

So far, CareAlert has only made about 1,000 upgrades to 4G.

Even when the customer is reached, Steele says he often can’t afford the $399 cost.

“Their unit is working right now, ‘I’m not going to spend money on the upgrade.’ If they are retired they may not have money to upgrade,” she said.

“Part of the answer is, ‘I can’t afford it, I don’t have access to government funding to be able to do it, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

“We’re doing a lot of improvement where people are accessing government funding through My Aged Care, we’re doing a lot of that through providers.”

However a representative from another medical alert supplier, who did not want his company to be named, said there were “no” or “very few” 3G units on the market and that “everything has been put in place” for the shutdown.

Steele argued it posed a “huge risk”.

He estimated that CareAlert, which offers both monitored and unmonitored devices, would see about 540 combined activations per month.

“Basically what it means is the day they flip the switch [to turn off the 3G network] a medical alert will not be able to give off any signal, not even at triple zero, nothing,” he said.

“If an elderly person is relying on one of these alarms, suddenly it stops working and they fall, they might be lying on the ground, they can’t access their phone, they might press the power button.” their alarm system and it’s just not going anywhere. It’s a pretty serious problem. It’s really life-threatening.

But he added that Optus, the 3G network used by his company, provided assistance.

It is understood that the telco does not hold customer relationships or contact details for customers who own heart rate monitors, alarms or other 3G-enabled devices such as vending machines or agricultural equipment.

Optus has informed medical alert providers of the affected services and directed them to contact their customers directly, and has also worked with relevant associations to highlight the need for their members to take action.

A Telstra spokesperson said in a statement that there is “a wide range of equipment in use across Australia that uses mobile technology and is sold or supplied directly by third parties to their customers”.

“In relation to healthcare and emergency response devices, the vast majority of them cannot be identified by mobile service providers as personal medical alarms as they often share the same technology as the radio modules of EFTPOS machines, telematics, security or localization,” he said.

“Since Telstra announced in 2019 that we will be shutting down our 3G network, we have worked closely with relevant industry organisations, manufacturers and suppliers to ensure they are aware of the impending closure so they can let their communities know and to customers if they have an affected device.”

He encouraged anyone who uses a personal alarm and is unsure whether they currently use the 3G network to “visit the supplier or organization from which you received the device and check that it will be able to function after the network shuts down”.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has been contacted for comment.

This comes against a backdrop of growing warnings that everything from vending machines and shopping center children’s rides to laundromats, car parks, security cameras and EFTPOS terminals could fall victim to the 3G shutdown.

In addition to hundreds of thousands of old cell phones still in use, there are a vast number 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,” Bruce Billson, ombudsman for small businesses and family businesses, said last week.

Affected devices may include “smartwatches, wearables and [internet-of-things] devices such as EFTPOS terminals, industrial routers, scanners, security monitoring devices, telematics, asset tracking tools, environmental monitoring tools, security cameras, medical alarms, personal emergency response solutions 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.

Robbie Allison, founder and CEO of vending machine company QualityVend, told 2GB host Ben Fordham last month that it was a “huge cost” to upgrade the equipment at about $650 each.

The high cost of modernization 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.

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 planned to switch off its network on June 30, announced last month that it would be delayed to the end of August to give customers more time to upgrade their devices, by sending a reminder text message .

At the time the opposition seized on the news to accuse the Communications Minister of having bungled the transition.

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

“[The delay by Telstra] it does nothing to address the estimated three million devices including vital medical alerts, agricultural infrastructure, small business EFTPOS machines and regional Australians are still completely dependent on the 3G network,” he said.

A spokesperson for Rowland said last week that the 3G switch-off was “a commercial decision by mobile network operators”.

“The Government supports the move to 3G to enable the deployment of better technologies such as 4G and 5G to increase the capacity, speed and data capacity of Australia’s networks,” he said.

“The Government understands that mobile network operators are engaging with customers affected by the move to 3G, including internet of things users.”

frank.chung@news.com.au

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