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What will the 3G switch-off mean for customers and telcos?

3G Switch Off

It’s the end of 3G as we know it, as the UK is the latest country to begin switching off the twenty-year-old standard. But how are the cost-of-living crisis, consumer apathy for 5G and the Internet of Things complicating its sunsetting?

Who, in 2023, is still using 3G? According to a recent poll by uSwitch of 2,000 people in the UK, one in four phone users still do – yet over half of them were unaware that the 3G network is in the process of being switched off, soon to join copper cables and fax machines as the latest piece of legacy tech in the dustbin of telecoms history.

After 20 years of service, 3G has found itself increasingly overshadowed by 4G, and more recently by 5G, which overtook 3G traffic for the first time in 2022.

3G services are now beginning to be phased out across the UK, and customers shifted from legacy networks for newer, more efficient 4G and 5G networks which will, in turn, benefit from the freeing up of further spectrum to improve their own capacity.

Vodafone’s 3G network is first to go; the company began its switch-off in February, with customers in Basingstoke and Plymouth (as well as those of MVNOs on its infrastructure) the first to lose connectivity, before the full network switch-off by December, though currently they have announced no plans to close 2G before the 2033 deadline.

They reportedly launched an awareness campaign, targeting their younger, savvier users to spread the word to their elder friends and relatives “to ensure everyone is getting the help that they need, so that no one is left behind.” However, uSwitch’s survey would suggest this message isn’t getting through.

Also in the UK, EE and Three are set to follow suit in 2024, while O2 hasn’t publicly announced when it’s planning its own switch-off. With the Government aiming for a total 3G switch-off by 2033, there is little urgency – or perhaps O2 is looking forward to eight years of being the UK’s only 3G provider, even if this sort of boast has come 20 years too late to impress anyone.

Beyond simply allowing faster speeds, 5G has the capacity to support the surge in bandwidth caused by the ever-growing number of connected devices, and cutting down the number of disparate networks will allow telcos to save on the operational costs of running multiple systems and re-invest in newer, faster systems and architecture.

According to Vodafone, less than 4% of data currently used on its network is on 3G, versus over 30% in 2016. uSwitch’s survey paints a more complex picture of connectivity in the UK, though; Bristol has the most regular 3G users at 29% (and the most 4G users at 66%), while Nottingham has the fewest at 8%, and in Yorkshire, only 48% of users get a reliable 4G service, with 14% often having to resort to 2G.

Ofcom claims an estimated 5.5 million people are still using 2G and 3G-only handsets, with countless more connections such as smart meters and IoT devices. Along with it being a useful back-up in the event of network failure, it’s these low-power devices that are for the most part keeping 2G on life support.

Three years on from its UK launch, only a third of Brits – just over 16 million people – own a 5G handset. One in six mobile phone users (16%) feel 5G technology is “overhyped,” and only 23% of consumers are planning to buy or upgrade to a 5G handset in the next two years. While some users feel their service has got better, less than half of 5G users (41%) say they have experienced improvements in speed or reliability.

A rise in changing contracts has gone hand-in-hand with a drop in smartphone sales to a 10-year low in 2022, with the state of customers’ finances and rising costs elsewhere causing many to put off upgrading in the face of a faltering economy. Forcing customers onto 5G at an increased personal cost only for them to find the service is worse is certain to alienate and drive away much of the customer base.

Little wonder then that, though 5G has overtaken 3G, usurping the throne of 4G is still some way off. It took six years from its launch in 2012 for 4G data traffic to overtake 3G in the UK. In contrast, 3G overtook 2G traffic in 2010, seven years after its launch in 2003. Now, four years since the launch of 5G, will we see it become the industry standard by 2025?

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has had an inconsistent approach to older networks, as noted by tech blogger Zahid Ghadialy, who has diligently chronicled the state of 2G and 3G shutdowns since 2017:

In France, Bouygues Telecom will shut down its 3G network in 2029, long after the closure of its 2G network in 2026, and Orange plans a 3G shutdown by the end of 2028, while in Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Spain, 3G will close earlier in 2025.

Telcos in Japan are broadly aiming for a mid-2020s shutdown of 3G, but on the flipside have already shut down their 2G networks way back in the late 2000s, with NTT Docomo’s 2G closure in 2012 making them the laggards.

Over in the US, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon cut their 3G services throughout last year, Verizon being the last major US carrier to do so, sending affected customers a free 4G phone for their troubles. Sure enough though, devices from older models of Kindle to 3G-connected cars to electronic voting machines soon also lost connectivity, with no replacement or recourse.

Given the choice of four current standards, 3G is stuck between a figurative rock and a hypothetical hard place, being not basic enough for low power IoT uses, but not high-capacity or efficient enough for continued use.

Of course, there’s no way that telcos can keep legacy networks running forever, and users will inevitably need to upgrade their handsets eventually or risk losing access to mobile data. However, whether it’s down to cost, coverage issues or a lack of awareness, many members of the public are soon in for a shock when they try to get online. Will customers get the support they need – both from a financial or informative standpoint – to make the change?

And with the UK’s PSTN switch-off coming in 2025, can telcos get their act together before another, larger cohort of customers are left disconnected, or are they destined to repeat the same mistakes once more?

Update [25/04/2024]: why are NTT Docomo,Telstra and others slowing their own 3G shutdowns? This article by Mobile World Live looks into the reasons why telcos in the Asia-Pacific region are still holding onto their older networks.

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Adam Hughes


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