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AT&T claims a phone made in 2019 will stop working, urges users to upgrade

Enlarge / A man walks with an umbrella outside of AT&T corporate headquarters on March 13, 2020, in Dallas, Texas.

AT&T is sending emails to customers warning them that their phones will stop working soon and that they should buy a new phone to continue getting data and voice service. But the email is misleading because these older phones will continue working on AT&T’s network until 2022, or another 18 months. Even worse, the AT&T email is going to some customers whose phones have the modern technology needed to continue working after the 2022 cutoff.

“We will soon be upgrading our network to use the latest technologies,” the AT&T email said, as shown in an article posted today by Android Police. “But your device… is not compatible with the new network and you need to continue to replace it to continue receiving service. Our team is here to help you find a compatible device that fits your needs.” The email advertises “free same-day delivery” for new phones.

The email links to an AT&T support page titled, “Get ready, 3G is going away in 2022.” The support page says AT&T is phasing out its 3G network by February 2022 and that “once we do, 3G devices and 4G wireless devices that don’t support HD Voice will no longer work on our network.”

While the email to customers links to that page, the email itself makes it sound like phones will stop working in the near future rather than 18 months from now. People who get the email and don’t click the link might think they have to buy a new phone now.

Moreover, some customers are getting the email even though they already have phones that support 4G and the Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology that enables AT&T’s HD Voice service. One customer who suspected the AT&T email was a scam wrote on an AT&T support forum yesterday:

I just received an email from AT&T that their network is no longer compatible to my device and I must upgrade. First off, this email to me sounded fishy. There was odd letters and numbers in the email address line. With this ongoing pandemic unfortunately you have to be very careful what’s real and not a scam. Is this legit or no? My phone is over a year old, an Android S10E.

The Samsung Galaxy S10E mentioned by that customer was released in March 2019 and is capable of supporting HD Voice, as AT&T’s own website confirms. Another person who got the email wrote on the support forum that “I confirmed my phone supports 4G and HD voice, which is what AT&T said was needed. There are many more phones than what they list that support both 4G and HD voice. Someone is either lazy, or lying.”

Seems like a scam, but AT&T employee says it’s real

One forum poster thought the email is a “scam for sure” because “no year-old phone is going to be suddenly incompatible.” But the email was legitimate. In another AT&T support thread in which a customer asked today if the email was a scam, an AT&T employee replied, “It’s not a scam. AT&T is shutting down 3G so phones that aren’t VoLTE compatible won’t work anymore.”

We contacted AT&T today and will update this article if the company answers our questions.

The problem apparently comes down not to whether the phone itself has the technology to support HD Voice but whether AT&T has “whitelisted” it. Android Police wrote that “AT&T only whitelists a small number of handsets it directly sells to customers for 4G voice calling, and it looks like even identical non-carrier phones don’t necessarily work with the carrier’s HD Voice service, like the aforementioned Galaxy S10E. Depending on how many handsets are incompatible, this email might have gone out to a significant amount of subscribers.”

In the AT&T support forum, one customer wrote, “It’s pretty tone-deaf to urge people to buy a new phone during an economic crisis. It’s also worth noting that many of the affected phones (such as my Nokia 6.1) support HD Voice; AT&T just hasn’t bothered to whitelist them.” The Nokia 6.1 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor, which supports Voice over LTE.

This AT&T webpage has a list of “HD Voice-capable devices that work on our network.” The Galaxy S10E is one of those devices, but the Nokia 6.1 is not. The AT&T website also has a list of unlocked phones that support HD Voice, which again includes the Samsung Galaxy S10E but not the Nokia 6.1.

“Upgrade or die!”

Another support thread was started by a customer who asked why AT&T “told me that my phone [a Google Pixel 3A Plus] is no longer compatible with AT&T.” The AT&T list of HD Voice-capable devices includes the Pixel 3A and 3A XL, so this appears to be a customer who got an incorrect notification.

Aside from the AT&T email apparently going to people who shouldn’t have gotten it, the email itself struck customers as confusing. One customer complained that “the ‘Upgrade or die!’ email was literally badly formatted” and “essentially content-free—one had to follow links to get any more info. When I foolishly tried to follow a link it broke anyway, reinforcing the thought that the email was bogus.”

The customer who called AT&T “tone-deaf” said that the change “has been really poorly communicated” and offered some commonsense suggestions for the carrier, writing:

I hope AT&T will make things better by:

Clarifying that affected devices will continue to work through February 2022.
Allowing all devices that support HD Voice to use those features on the AT&T network.
Updating the “Bring Your Own Device” page to clarify these restrictions.

Update at 4:25pm ET: AT&T provided Ars a statement in which it apologized for the confusing email to customers. “This email was one of many planned to keep customers informed about the shutdown of our 3G network in early 2022,” AT&T said. “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.” AT&T did not answer our questions about how many people the email went to and why it apparently went to some customers who have 4G phones that support HD Voice.

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