This week, AT&T began sending out an email that (rather misleadingly) told a large number of its subscribers that their phones would stop working on the network soon, and that they needed to upgrade. Straight up: this email is mostly BS. It's authentic, and AT&T sent it, but the action they're recommending you take — namely, buying a new phone — is not something you need to do for at least another 18 months, if not longer or potentially at all. Here's what you need to know.
No 3G voice changes until February 2022
The first big thing to know is that this email refers to AT&T's plans to sunset (take offline) its 3G voice network in February 2022. That means that phones on AT&T which do not support HD Voice, AT&T's branded version of VoLTE (Voice over LTE), will no longer be able to make phone calls. But nothing is changing right now.
When the 3G voice network is sunsetted in 2022, only 4G VoLTE calls will go through on AT&T, and that means you'll need to have a smartphone with VoLTE support, which gets into the next big issue.
Is my phone HD Voice / VoLTE ready for AT&T or not?
This is the sixty-five thousand dollar question. Right now, AT&T appears to be sending these emails to anyone with a phone not specifically whitelisted by AT&T for HD Voice. The only phones that AT&T officially considers HD Voice capable are those which it has certified for the network and sells itself. The truth is much, much muddier.
Some unlocked phones simply won't make calls over AT&T's 4G network (even some relatively new ones) because AT&T has not whitelisted them to do so — even near identical models of phones AT&T itself sells. Whether your specific model of smartphone works with AT&T HD Voice can be incredibly difficult information to find, and AT&T does not publish a definitive list of unlocked phones it has placed on this list. It's entirely possible your technically "unsupported" smartphone actually does work with AT&T's HD Voice — various unlocked phones from Samsung, Google, Motorola, and Nokia have been shown to work.
How do I check if my phone supports VoLTE / HD Voice on AT&T?
You can use testing apps like the one below to check if your phone supports VoLTE on AT&T. While not 100% reliable, most phones should play nicely and display the necessary information, specifically the voice network your phone is reporting as connected.
Once installed, open the app, and you'll see various information about your phone's network status. Be sure you have Wi-Fi disabled and are in an area with AT&T LTE coverage. Make a phone call to any number (perhaps to AT&T's customer service!), back out of the dialer with the call still ongoing, and check back in the network status app.
This simple app will tell you if you're on an LTE voice network.
If the "Voice Network Type" reports as LTE while your phone call is ongoing, you're probably good to go. If it reports as something other than LTE (like 3G, GSM, or WCDMA), your phone likely does not support AT&T's HD Voice feature, meaning it will no longer be able to make voice calls after February 2022. I highly recommend uninstalling the above app once you've tested, by the way, as it contains tons of powerful features which could potentially mess with your phone's mobile data connection if you accidentally trigger them.
If your phone reports an LTE voice network in this app but you still received the email from AT&T, you should reach out to AT&T customer service and ask if your phone is currently provisioned for VoLTE (or HD Voice) service. You may have to escalate to a 2nd level technician before you get an answer, but AT&T is absolutely capable of giving you this information.
My phone doesn't have VoLTE — do I really need to upgrade?
If by February 2022 you want to continue making phone calls, yes, you probably do. Basically any smartphone AT&T sells right now and will sell for the foreseeable future supports HD Voice (VoLTE), though, so you'd have to go out of your way to buy a phone from AT&T that doesn't work with this feature. It's entirely likely they sell none at all without HD Voice anymore, in fact.
But if your phone doesn't work with AT&T HD Voice, your only hope is that AT&T decides to whitelist more models of phones as the sunsetting date nears. We have no indication that AT&T plans to do this, though. The other possibility is that AT&T will delay the 3G network sunset, which actually could happen — COVID-19 is causing delays all over the telecom industry. So it's possible your 3G voice phone's life may get a short extension to its lease on life, but I wouldn't bet on it.