AT&T's plans to shut down its 3G network next year will have a wider impact on devices than just your uncle's dated flip phone. Although AT&T is handing out free smartphones to affected subscribers, there's one other big category of gadgets that will be affected by the shutdown, and so far, none of the companies involved have said a word about what they're going to do. See, Amazon's 3G Kindles for most of the last decade use AT&T's network for their Whispernet data connections. So, what's going to happen to all the 3G-connected Kindles out there when they don't have data anymore?

It's a big question, and we asked Amazon about it as we spent the last month trying to dig up details about it, but the company refused to answer our repeated inquiries on the subject. Whatever it's planning is still secret — and that's assuming it's not just going to leave 3G Kindle owners in the lurch after AT&T refarms its spectrum. Some 3G Kindles also have Wi-Fi, but not all do, which means some models may effectively turn into bricks or live their life tethered with sideloaded ebooks.

In the absence of an official explanation or roadmap, we reached out to a couple of network and device analysts for expert commentary on the possibilities.

Which devices are affected?

Not all of Amazon's Whispernet-connected Kindles use AT&T's 3G network, and the "Whispernet" branding has apparently been retired, though Amazon previously used it to describe the optional Kindle 3G connectivity. Some Kindle models were Wi-Fi only, and others were available in both 3G+ Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi-only versions. Until the Kindle 2, Amazon actually used Sprint's network for the Kindle's cellular connectivity, and more recent devices have LTE compatibility.

Recent LTE-connected devices like the last few models of the Kindle Oasis (above) use LTE, and won't be affected by the 3G shutdown. 

Between 2009 and the 2017 refresh of the Kindle Oasis, the e-ink Whispernet-connected Kindles were all 3G devices, and (to our knowledge) all used AT&T's 3G network for their data connections. That includes 3G/cellular models of the Kindle 2 International, Kindle DX, the Kindle Keyboard, Kindle Touch, Kindle Paperwhite, 2nd gen Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Voyage, 3rd gen Kindle Paperwhite, and the original Kindle Oasis. Some models, like the Kindle DX, didn't even have Wi-Fi to fall back on — they were 3G-only.

Specs for these devices vary, but we spoke to Moor Insights & Strategy senior analyst Anshel Sag about how AT&T's shutdown could affect 3G-connected Kindles, using the immensely popular 2010 3G Kindle Keyboard as an example.

The classic Kindle Keyboard.

Though it's hard to dig up specs for some of Amazon's Kindles, the Kindle Keyboard's connectivity is powered by an AnyDATA modem supporting 3G bands 1, 2, and 5 (2100, 1900, and 850 MHz), limiting network compatibility. Hypothetically, the hardware could connect to T-Mobile or Verizon's 3G networks using those frequencies, but there are some other standards issues and hardware limitations, it's unlikely that Amazon would be willing to update a device from 2010, and both T-Mobile and Verizon also have plans to sunset their 3G networks in a similar timeframe. At best, such a move would stretch out barely another few months of life for the devices. With 3G in the US going away across the board, Amazon can't just run to another carrier for help.

What can Amazon do for 3G Kindle owners?

However, the Kindle Keyboard hardware also supports a 900MHz GSM/2G fallback — as, I suspect, many of the more recent 3G-connected models do —  which opens a curious door. Amazon's new Sidewalk network is still in early days, but it also uses 900MHz frequencies for connectivity for some devices. Again, it would require an update, Sidewalk doesn't have anywhere near as much coverage, and there could be other technical challenges or hardware incompatibilities, but it may be possible for Amazon to connect older Whispernet Kindle devices that way. But it's still not really a solution, and even if it were possible, the potentially millions of 3G-connected Kindles out there would then only have connectivity within the range of a 900MHz-broadcasting Echo speaker or Ring camera (or the obvious Wi-Fi, for Kindles that have that).

The best move, in Sag's expert opinion, is for Amazon to follow similar carrier strategies and either offer free replacements or a discount for existing owners toward new LTE-connected models:

"Lots of companies and services will be impacted by the sunsetting of 3G connectivity over the next couple of years to make way for 5G. Companies like Amazon have a chance to use existing services like Sidewalk or simply take the path of least resistance and make it a positive customer service experience."

A sword hangs in the air over the cellular connection of a million+ Kindles, and Amazon is silent.

After all, Amazon rakes in tons of cash from Kindle ebook sales, and folks that are still actively using these older models are probably still buying books by the boatload. Right now, the only LTE-connected Kindles still being sold as new by Amazon are the $250 Paperwhite and $350 Oasis, which are both pretty expensive, but much of the cost of these cellular-equipped models likely comes down to paying AT&T for data, and Amazon's already been footing the bill for these older Kindles that are about to be sunset years. Amazon could offer these long-standing brand-loyal customers a good deal — or, at least, a discount. Cliff Maldonado, principal analyst at BayStreet Research, also thinks it's likely Amazon will send replacement devices with more modern connectivity if customers complain enough as a one-off.

Either way, Amazon should probably tell customers what's going to happen

At the time of writing, we are a mere seven months out from AT&T's 3G shutdown, and Amazon has yet to publicly acknowledge the effect that will have on a decade of 3G, AT&T-connected, previously Whispernet-branded Kindle devices.

While I can't find official numbers, back in 2018, Amazon said it had sold tens of millions of Kindles, estimates at that time pointed to something like 90 million active e-reader devices in the US, and some 67-85% of the US ebook market is controlled by Amazon, depending on who you ask. Extend out these numbers for an order-of-magnitude estimate (assuming lots of things, like the ratio of reviews between cellular vs. non-cellular Kindle models being indicative of the ratio of units sold), and there's likely at least a million 3G-connected Kindle devices that are set to lose connectivity next year, and probably more.

A sword hangs in the air over the cellular connection of a million+ Kindles, and Amazon is silent. The company did not answer any of our questions regarding the impact of AT&T's 3G shutdown on its 3G-connected Kindles (or even respond with a general statement), but AT&T did provide us with the following:

"Like others in the industry, we plan to end service on our 3G wireless network next year. This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next generation technologies and services. These plans are not new and we have been working with our customers and business clients during this transition."

There are Kindle alternatives if Amazon's silence leaves you thinking about changing ecosystems. 

Customers using Amazon's Kindle devices and store likely have plenty of brand loyalty — given the store built into their hardware if nothing else. But if Amazon's failure to explain your Kindle's future leaves a sour taste in your mouth, there are other options. Barnes & Noble still sells its Nook hardware, and the last time we checked it out, it was pretty good. Kobo also persists under Rakuten ownership, with both an ebook store and its own devices. (Amazon seems to be alone in offering cellular-connected e-readers, though.) Fortunately, other ebook stores offer the same major publishers and authors, you just miss out on Amazon's "Kindle Direct" line of self-published titles — which isn't necessarily even a bad thing.

Either way, Amazon really should tell its customers what's going to happen to nearly a decade's worth of 3G-connected Kindles in just over half a year, but so far, it hasn't.