Cellular Network No Longer Supports my Meters
It is hard to believe, but we are at the close of what has been a crazy year. This month also marks the first anniversary of the Ask Kevin Anything column. Thank you to everyone who has sent in questions and comments over the past year. I am looking forward to another year of interesting questions! Looking back, I can clearly say I could not have predicted most of what happened this year. However, something things can be expected, and this month’s question falls into this category.
I work for a town that currently has a large number of on-street meters. I was recently told that the cellular network used by these meters will no longer be supported at the end of the year and that I have to upgrade all of my machines, or they will stop working. Is this true? We can’t afford to upgrade due to budget constrictions related to COVID-19. What can we do?
Nettled in New Jersey
Your question is a timely one as many people in the parking industry are dealing with hardware issues due to the cellular network selected by their hardware providers. The mobile phones, tablets, watches, and many other “smart” devices that we have come to rely on use a cellular network to connect to the internet.
These networks are seemingly everywhere (until you need them) and work well, for the most part. Behind this modern-day magic is a complex web of technologies and physics that don’t affect your everyday life until, as in this situation, they stop working. To better understand this issue, let’s look into mobile networks in more depth, how they affect your parking equipment, and what you can do about it.
A cellular network comprises several items, but at its core, the network communicates using portions of the radio frequency spectrum called bands.
You can think of these bands as much like stations on an AM/FM radio. Each radio station utilizes a different frequency to broadcast, and as you move across the dial, you can listen to a station when you are tuned into that station’s frequency.
A portion of the overall radio spectrum is set aside to be utilized by cellular networks. The Federal Communications Commission auctions off the use of these bands to individual companies. Due to the nature of radio waves, there are only so many network bands available for use.
In addition to the network bands used, there are various methods of communicating on these bands.
These communication methods have many fancy names and acronyms (CDMA, GSM, LTE, eMBB, etc.), but each describes a method of exchanging data across a wireless network. As these technologies advance, they have been grouped into segments for ease of reference and marketing purposes. The technology “generations” are shorthand for improvements in speed, security, and robustness.
This separation is where the terminology of 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G (and before long, 6G) comes into play.
Finally, to be able to use these networks, you have to have hardware that supports both the band and the technology utilized. You have likely seen the advertisements for new 5G phone offers from mobile providers.
To use the new 5G networks they have spent billions of dollars building, you need to have a phone that supports the 5G networks.
The same is true for other devices that want to use the new 5G networks, such as tablets, vehicles, smart devices, and other IoT (internet of things) hardware. Existing devices build for 3G, or 4G networks are not able to run on 5G networks.
The larger issue arises when cellular networks, who, as we discussed above, only have a limited number of bands, have to repurpose the bands currently used by older generation networks (2G/3G) for use on new generation networks (5G/6G).
When this repurposing occurs, the older network is shut down, and all of the devices using that network lose their ability to communicate. Luckily cellular phone companies know that this change is coming and announce it many years before the networks are shut down. For example, when AT&T shut down their 2G network in 2017, they first announced it back in 2012. In 2016 Verizon announced they were shutting down their 3G network in 2019 but extended it to the end of 2020.
The last issue is most hardware used in smart devices (such as parking meters) only supports the bands and technologies used by one cellular network. So, if your device is using a Verizon 3G network (being phased out this year), it likely won’t run on the AT&T 3G network (shutting down in 2022). To answer your first question, if you are being told your device will stop working, this is likely mostly true.
The “smart” features of the meter will stop working, reporting, credit card acceptance, etc. Other manual items, such as coin acceptance, will likely keep working.
So, what can you do at this point? You have a few options, depending on your budget and timeline. The first and likely easiest is to pay the money and upgrade the existing devices.
Especially in times of restrained budgets getting money to upgrade existing hardware can be easier than buying new hardware. Depending on how much notice they gave you (remember, they had years of notice from the cellular providers), this should affect whether or not you want to keep using this vendor.
Many hardware providers depend on these forced hardware refresh situations and put customers in a difficult position to force an upgrade. I don’t know if that is happening to you, but it does happen more often than hardware manufacturers like to discuss publicly.
If you chose not to accept the forced upgrade, you could take this opportunity to change your technology or technology provider.
While budgets can be a concern, many hardware providers are now offering lower upfront cost models (see my September article), which can help you upgrade without the upfront budget crunch.
Furthermore, depending on your meter type (single space vs. multi-space), the cost of buying (and maintaining) fewer new machines could be dramatically lower than upgrading a larger number of existing devices.
Additionally, this could be an excellent opportunity to add one or more mobile payment options, as I discussed in my March column. The key to either option is to find a vendor who can deliver on time and is willing to contractually agree to that timeline with financial impacts of they do not.
Select a vendor with a better track record on customer service and communications, so you don’t fall into this situation again. Moving forward, it would be good to always budget for these types of upgrades as technology will continue to improve and require additional upgrades as time progresses. While we can’t predict most things, the need for technology upgrades is just about a sure thing.
Good luck with your upgrade. Remember, there are always more options than what might be given to you by your existing provider and they likely need you more than you need them.
If you have a question, comment, or even complaint please email me at email@example.com. Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I look forward to your questions in 2021.