The 3G Phase-Out and What it Means for the Telecommunications Landscape
There’s a lot of buzz these days coming out of the communications sector — typically emanating from 5G, IoT, and MEC. However, due to the serialization of Huawei’s battles with Sino-skeptic Western regulators, and eccentric stories like Nokia’s extraterrestrial 4G deal with NASA, it’s easy to lose track of the industry’s most important subplots and B stories. For instance, did you know we’re on the cusp of a global phase-out of 2G and 3G?
Now, lest ye be prone to eschatological panic, let this serve as reassurance. A post-3G world is by no means a sign of end-times. Quite the contrary, in fact! Nevertheless, it will impact the near future of the telecommunications industry.
So, in this article, we’ll address the following:
- What is 3G Technology?
- How will the 3G phase-out impact the United States?
- How will the 3G phase-out impact Europe?
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
What is 3G Technology?
3G, which first arrived in the early 2000s, refers to the “third generation” of wireless mobile telecommunications technologies. It was from 3G that much of what we recognize as the modern mobility landscape originated. Indeed, smartphones, and especially the iPhone, were developed using 3G technology. The mobile app economy too, which quickly followed the iPhone to market in 2008.
Defining features of 3G include:
- A core network based on circuit and packet switching
- The use of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)
- The allocation of 5 MHz of bandwidth per carrier
- The ability to facilitate voice calls and data transfers
- Data transfer rates up to seven times faster than those of 2G
But alas, now cracks a noble heart! Like cassette tapes, fidget spinners, and the inimitable Blockbuster Video, the time has come to say good night to 3G.
That said, the sun will not set equally everywhere. The 3G phase-out will differ from country to country, and from network to network, depending primarily on the following conditions:
- Coverage footprint and the impact it will have on users
- Number of devices and subscribers
- The availability of voice services
- Various regulatory factors
- Competition and other available services
How will the 3G phase-out impact the United States?
In the United States, carriers are quite eager to sunset older networks. Primarily because the spectrum used for 2G and 3G services can be repurposed to support 4G LTE and newer alternatives. Important also is the fact that 4G LTE services are more efficient, allowing more devices to share the same spectrum.
Yet, another reason American carriers are so anxious to make the jump is that many new devices are more dynamic than 3G can support. Indeed, because 3G tops out around 3 Mbps, these devices require better networks to deliver on the promise of their design.
Here are some US 2G/3G phase-out dates to watch for:
- Verizon will sunset its CDMA network at the end of 2020.
- AT&T has stated that they will sunset their 3G network in February of 2022, with the final date for phone activation on the 3G network already residing firmly in the rearview mirror.
- T-Mobile has not yet made a public statement regarding the date they plan to shutter their 3G network. However, many speculate T-Mobile will sunset their 3G networks sometime in 2020 or 2021.
- The last activation date for 3G on the Sprint network was April 2019 and the Sprint 3G network will be shut down in December of 2022.
How will the 3G phase-out impact Europe?
According to the folks over at Westbase.io, 4G will account for 72% of mobile connections by 2023. Indeed, it has already overtaken 3G as Europe’s preferred technology, delivering better speeds, costs, and availability. As such, many European network operators have made the decision to no longer support 3G networks. Westbase.io summarizes thusly:
- EE has already begun re-farming its 2.1GHz band but will continue support until 2022, while Telia Norway also plan to start phasing out their 3G network this year
- Telenor Norway has similarly begun to re-farm its 900MHz network to 4G LTE, originally starting this in 2017, though expect to maintain their 2.1GHz 3G until at least 2020
- Three and Vodafone (Europe-wide) have confirmed that they are aiming to switch off 3G networks by 2020, while Telenor Denmark has similar but unconfirmed plans
- Others, such as Orange France will follow suit a little later in 2021 while BT and KPN (Netherlands) are targeting 2022
- Sweden Telenor will start their 3G sunset as early as 2020 but will continue until 2025, with coverage still promised in rural areas until this date
In an interesting contrast to their star-spangled counterparts, European carriers will be phasing 3G out before 2G. There are several reasons for this. First, while 4G LTE can do anything 3G can (but cheaper and better!), 2G still supports large, low-cost coverage, making it a better fallback option than 3G. Moreover, 2G remains a popular choice for powering M2M/IoT applications. As Westbase.io notes, two-thirds of operators cited M2M/IoT deployments as a reason for continuing to support their 2G networks.
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