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

Tens of thousands of older Australians may still be using personal health alarms that depend on 3G less than two months before the network shuts down for good and the devices stop working.

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

“For our business alone, we’d probably have 3,000 3G units going down right now,” Mr Steele said.

CareAlert is one of about 10 major suppliers of medical alarms in Australia and Mr Steele suggested others were having the same problems.

“You’re looking at 30,000 to 40,000 people who would still have a 3G alarm,” he estimated.

“We are currently using many resources to try to contact these people, but it is not easy. We’re trying all kinds of ways to reach these people – we’re emailing, texting, sending letters, trying to call, but you’re dealing with seniors and they just don’t get it.

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

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

Medical alarms, usually a pendant or watch, monitor for any sudden movements, such as potential falls, and notify either the user’s emergency contacts or a 24-hour call center, depending on the device.

Mr. Steele said his company began trying to contact customers for upgrades last year.

“We recently increased it because we’re not getting the response we really want,” he said.

CareAlert has only done about 1,000 upgrades to 4G so far.

Even when a customer is reached, Mr. Steele said, they often can’t afford the $399 cost.

“Their unit is working right now,” I won’t spend the money to upgrade. If they are on a pension, they may not have the money to upgrade,” he said.

“Some of the answers are, ‘I can’t afford it, I don’t have access to government funding to do it, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

“We’re building a lot where people can access government funding through My Aged Care, we’re doing a lot of that through providers.”

However, a spokesman for another medical alarm provider, who did not want his company to be named, said it had “no” or “very few” 3G units on the market and that it was “all set” to switch off.

Mr Steele claimed it posed a “tremendous risk”.

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

“It basically means the day they hit that switch [to turn off the 3G network] the medical alarm will not be able to call at all, not even triple zero, zero,” he said.

“If you have an elderly person who relies on one of these alarms, it suddenly stops working and they fall, maybe they’re lying on the floor, they can’t get to their phone, maybe they’re pushing a button on their alert system, and it’s just not going to go anywhere. This is a pretty big problem. It’s really life-threatening.”

But he added that Optus, the 3G network his company uses, was offering help.

It is understood that telco does not maintain customer relationships or contact information for customers who have heart monitors, alarms or other 3G enabled devices such as vending machines or agricultural equipment.

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

A Telstra spokesman said in a statement that there was “a wide range of equipment using mobile technology sold or provided directly to customers by third parties” in use in Australia.

“Regarding healthcare and emergency response devices, the vast majority cannot be recognized by mobile service providers as a personal medical alarm, as they often have the same radio module technology as EFTPOS, telematics, security or tracking devices. ,” he said.

“Since Telstra announced in 2019 that we would be shutting down our 3G network, we have been working closely with relevant industry organisations, manufacturers and suppliers to ensure they are aware of the upcoming shutdown so they can notify their communities and customers if their device is affected .”

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

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has been contacted for comment.

It comes amid growing warnings that everything from vending machines and children’s rides in shopping centers to laundromats, car parks, security cameras and EFTPOS terminals could fall victim to the 3G shutdown.

As well as the hundreds of thousands of older mobile phones still in use, there are vast numbers of other 3G devices “quietly installed” in businesses, homes and farms that will “suddenly fail and people will wonder what’s going on”.

“It’s a trigger point because it’s going to hurt the business,” Bruce Billson, the small and family business ombudsman, 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 Australian Mobile Telecommunications. Association (AMTA).

Australians have been urged to check their devices and, if affected, contact their manufacturer or service provider for an upgrade.

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

“People probably don’t even think about it, the older EFTPOS machines and things like that. That’s the risk of losing customers, and for some it can be a critical, core part of the capability.”

The decision by all three Australian telcos to shut down the 20-year-old 3G network is expected to allow operators to increase capacity for later-generation networks.

Vodafone already shut down its 3G network in January.

Robbie Allison, founder and managing director of vending machine company QualityVend, told 2GB host Ben Fordham last month that upgrading the equipment was a “huge price” at about $650 a piece.

The high cost of the upgrade will be “significant and at a time when small businesses, family businesses and agribusinesses are operating on thin margins and increasingly high input costs,” Mr. Billson.

There have previously been concerns that more than a million people, even with older 4G phones, may not be able to contact emergency services as they default to 3G when dialing triple zero.

Telstra, which had planned to switch off its network on June 30, announced last month that it had been pushed back to the end of August to give customers more time to upgrade their devices, with a reminder text message sent.

At the time, the opposition seized on the news and accused the communications minister of missing the switch.

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts said the federal government should step in and lift the shutdown entirely.

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

A spokesman for Ms Rowland said last week that switching off 3G was “a commercial decision by mobile network operators”.

“The government is supporting the transition to 3G to enable the introduction of better technology such as 4G and 5G to increase the data capacity, speed and capacity of Australia’s networks,” he said.

“The Government understands that mobile network operators are working with customers affected by the transition to 3G, including IoT users.”

frank.chung@news.com.au

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