Old cell phones may not be able to use high-speed data networks, take photos or play music, but they can call 911 in an emergency. Federal law requires that cell phones must be able to call 911 at all times. As long as an old cell phone is functional, it can be used as an emergency phone.
FCC & 911
The Federal Communications Commission requires wireless service providers to connect 911 calls to "Public Safety Answering Points" whether the phone user is one of their subscribers or not. For example, even if a T-Mobile customer's phone shows no "bars" and can't make a regular phone call, it can still make a 911 emergency call if it can find AT&T Wireless or another compatible network. Of course, if no compatible cell phone networks are within range, it cannot connect the call.
If a wireless service provider receives a request from a local emergency services center to provide enhanced 911 data, it has to set up its network so that the center receives the phone number of a 911 caller as well as the location of the cell tower the call is connected to.
Cell phones with global positioning system (GPS) receivers can accurately pinpoint their location using data from satellites circling the earth. However, most older phones do not have GPS receivers and thus cannot provide such extra data to emergency services. However, other network technologies can be used by wireless carriers to pinpoint the locations of old phones.
Even phones that have not been initialized for service and have not been assigned a number can call 911. As long as a phone can be powered up and can locate a network, it can connect to 911 services.
Free 911 Phones
Many nonprofit organizations collect old cell phones, refurbish them and distribute them to those who just need a phone for emergencies. Most of these phones are distributed at no cost. A search on the phrase "free 911 phones" or "911 phones" will yield a list of groups who collect and distribute old cell phones for 911 use.
Since many old analog cell phone networks have been deactivated, only a digital cell phone should be depended on for calling emergency services.