The dawn of 3G brought mobile internet to the masses and fuelled the smartphone era still dominating the industry today, but the advent of 4G and 5G has rendered the network technology all but obsolete in many countries, leading operators to gradually pull the plug.

However, there are still consumers and businesses tied to devices using the technology, meaning there is a moral and regulatory imperative to ensure nobody is left behind.

GSMA Intelligence’s Spectrum Navigator places the number of operators in Europe which have already completed 3G sunsets at 22, with 41 more scheduled by 2030.

The analyst house’s senior director and head of data acquisition Radhika Gupta noted many players in Europe are switching-off 3G rather than 2G due to a perceived low impact on customer experience, and the fact many public services such as utilities and emergency networks still used the previous generation.

Potential issues faced by operators ending 3G, Gupta added, include: barriers to customer upgrades such as lack of appropriate handsets or coverage issues; costs associated with sunsetting and upgrading existing kit; and being under-prepared in offering local and international VoLTE as an alternative.

When quizzed by Mobile World Live (MWL) about the drivers and challenges for shutting down 3G, some of Europe’s major providers highlighted energy saving and reuse of resources, while also underlining the importance of support for vulnerable customers to ensure nobody is cut off.

Power hungry
One company to have already discontinued 3G is Deutsche Telekom. Speaking to MWL, the operator’s programme manager for the project Axel Burkart cited the primary driver as making optimal use of its spectrum assets.

“In general, modern technologies, such as LTE or 5G, offer enormous advantages over the older 3G/UMTS network. They are many times faster and can supply significantly more customers at the same time.”

Chief networks officer of UK operator BT Greg McCall noted alongside the ability to reuse spectrum, its nationwide 3G network was still consuming a lot of energy despite falling usage.

“3G data use has fallen to record low levels and now accounts for less than 0.6 per cent of all downloaded data on the EE network and just 7 per cent of all voice traffic,” he estimated, highlighting the latter represented a 73 per cent decrease since January 2020.

“Despite its falling usage, 3G accounts for up to 35 per cent of the total power used in our mobile network. Switching it off will save the equivalent of the energy needed to fully charge 4 billion smartphones,” McCall added.

The operator plans to begin the nationwide sunset early in 2024, but is planning a localised pilot in the English town of Warrington in the coming weeks [w/o 17 July] to inform its wider move.

A representative for Orange told MWL it is “convinced it is not sustainable to continue stacking multiple generations of mobile technologies. The 2G/3G switch off is a transformation journey, initiated by all telco operators in the world.”

As with its peers, Orange pointed to benefits from reuse of spectrum and the energy inefficiency of 3G.

The France-based group added its plan to shut down legacy technology in a “gradual and smooth” way was well advanced, noting 3G was “an outdated technology which can’t be used anymore to provide best in class services to our customers”.

It plans to end the service in its first market of Slovakia later this year, followed by Poland and Belgium. Along with these markets, completion of sunsetting in Luxembourg, Romania and Spain is expected by end-2025 at the latest.

In France, it is switching off 2G first (from 2025) then 3G from 2028 due to the latter having superior coverage in the country. This order, Orange noted, is being replicated by others in its home market.

Among the main challenges cited by the operators was around ensuring customers are not suddenly cut-off, especially when it comes to voice.

For Deutsche Telekom’s project, Burkart explained it had “repeatedly informed our customers in a variety of ways and made it easier for them to switch to new devices with good offers”, adding when 3G went offline users in Germany with old handsets were able to use the extensive 2G reception, though it recommended using VoLTE devices for superior coverage.

McCall added many users on BT’s EE service had been “naturally” upgrading from 3G handsets anyway, but added ahead of its Warrington pilot staff had been “calling all vulnerable customers in advance to make them aware of the support available to them. The important thing is that even if customers do not switch to 4G or 5G now, they will not be left disconnected”, pointing to the continuing availability of 2G for voice and SMS.

He added the company “purposely stocks a wide range of 4G phones to suit the needs and budgets of all customers and are offering free device assessments to anyone who wants to understand if they need to upgrade their handset”.

Aside from ensuring support for vulnerable customers, McCall noted there is also a responsibility around third parties selling products running the old technology, such as those supplying telecare alarms.

He highlighted it was important these players were “aware of how the UK’s mobile networks are evolving and when. While we do not have a contract to supply network connectivity to these devices, we are happy to provide support and guidance on the transition to modern mobile networks”.

Orange noted an initial challenge was around the transition to VoLTE to avoid 2G network congestion after the 3G switch-off.

To achieve this it is undertaking “segmented communication campaigns” to promote benefits being brought by the move away from legacy technology and removing non-VoLTE terminals from sale in its shops.

“In the countries where we have wholesale customers or network sharing agreements, additional complexity could be encountered as our partners have also to anticipate this switch-off and it could add constraints on the network engineering for instance”.

“However, as mobile network operators have very close roadmaps in most countries, it is more a matter of alignment.”

While customer communication in the consumer segment has garnered much of the sunsetting attention, IoT devices can have a much longer lifespan than smartphones and, as a result, users of these devices may be more vulnerable to network end-of-life.

Martin Whitlock, CTO at IoT specialist Telenor Connexion, highlighted 2G sunsetting will actually pose a greater industry issue than 3G.

“2G has been around longer and therefore a larger installed base has been established in the market using this technology,” he noted.

“Also, for many cost-sensitive applications, 2G has been preferred as modules have been cheaper and 2G performance has been good enough for the majority of applications built for sending small amounts of data.”

“During the current phase, in which some 3G is being retired but other 3G networks continue to operate, IoT applications may need to be able to use multiple network types to achieve sufficient coverage globally,” he added. “This might add complexity and/or cost compared to using single-mode hardware.”

He added even in phased rollouts of network generation changes, the “move will involve new software and hardware and may cause downtime” adding “careful planning is essential to minimise impacts on customers and on the service and business reputation”.

From an enterprise perspective he called for operators to “announce sunset plans to the market well in advance to allow enterprises to plan ahead”, warning “some operators have been better than others to give a proper heads up”. Whitlock explained a notice period of between two years and five years “is what can be expected”.

While the end of 3G is undoubtedly a necessity, the operators interviewed by MWL all indicated the technology had opened the door to the mobile data era but, as McCall noted, “there is nothing that can be done now on 3G that cannot be done better on 4G or 5G and that is why the time has come to responsibly retire the network”.