Operators in several advanced markets across Asia recently turned off 3G or set a date for shutoff. The question is why, with dwindling subscriber numbers, has it taken so long and why aren’t more making the move?

Mobile players in Taiwan, Japan and Australia recently ended 3G, with the exception of NTT Docomo in Japan (date set in 2026) and Telstra (postponed to 30 June 2024 to give customers with older 3G handsets, not supporting emergency calls on 4G and 5G networks, more time to upgrade).

In South Korea, only about 2 per cent of SK Telecom and KT’s mobile users are on 3G plans – collectively just over 1 million. LG Uplus doesn’t operate a 3G network, having turned it off in July 2021.

A KT representative told Mobile World Live it is not currently considering terminating its 3G network, with the licence for the spectrum expiring in 2026.

Moving south to Hong Kong, 3G subscribers in 2023 dropped 25.6 per cent year-on-year to around 650,000, accounting for just 2.7 per cent of total mobile subscribers. At the beginning of 2020, just months before operators launched 5G, 3G subs totalled 4.6 million.

Hong Kong operators’ 3G spectrum in the 2.1GHz band expires in 2031 and they appear to be in no hurry to decommission the networks. The spectrum licence renewal process likely won’t start since 2028. If an operator opts to refarm to 5G, since a full shutdown of 3G infrastructure could take a few years, the launch could be pushed closer to 2031, with the pending renewal impacting its investment.

One New Zealand recently postponed switching off its 3G network from 31 August 2024 to 31 March 2025, noting it will be contacting customers to help them upgrade to a 4G or 5G device. The operator added it doesn’t want anyone to get left behind or get disconnected.

Data from GSMA Intelligence showed 18 APAC operators completed or plan to shut 3G networks in 2024, up from just three the previous year and seven in 2022. With a spike this year, the number of closures is expected to drop to four in 2025 and one in each of the following two years.

By 2026, it estimates a total of 44 3G networks across 18 countries in the region will be decommissioned.

Risk averse
GSMA Intelligence head Peter Jarich told Mobile World Live since one goal of shutting down an old technology is to refarm spectrum for a next-gen technology, if an operator’s existing networks are handling demand without issue, the case for a sunset may be weaker.

He argued operators are in no rush to shut down a network supporting critical use cases, such emergency calls and security-related IoT connections. “From a usage perspective – it’s huge. If you can’t get emergency calls, it’s a liability for everyone.”

Paul Hodges, SVP for Asia Pacific at Syniverse, agreed, acknowledging that while reducing costs is a significant concern, operators recognise user experience plays a crucial role. “Overall, a careful balance is required to weigh costs against benefits before considering any network shutdown.”  

Hodges explained shutting down a network is a massive project, requiring extensive preparation due to the technological advancements and legacy services associated with each generation. He added it’s “never an easy undertaking”, given the close collaboration with regulatory bodies required to ensure proper procedures for returning spectrum for recycling purposes.

Addressing the issue of older 3G handsets lacking support for emergency calls on 4G and 5G networks requires coordination between networks and devices, he noted. “Transitioning between networks necessitates interworking, making it challenging to find effective workarounds. Implementing temporary fixes may simply complicate matters.”

Missing out
Radhika Gupta, head of data acquisition at GSMA Intelligence, added shutting 3G networks requires VoLTE networks to be ubiquitous, or an operator can lose inbound roaming revenue and experience poor customer experience in outbound roaming.

Recon Analytics analyst and director Daryl Schoolar concurred operators don’t want to miss out on roaming fees from inbound traffic from other markets where there is a higher percentage of users still on 3G phones.

He emphasised some operators have kept 3G going to support voice communications, explaining older 4G handsets either don’t support VoLTE or if they do, they revert to 3G for emergency calls.

“I assume when the phones were manufactured VoLTE was still seen as immature, so something as important as emergency services fell back to older 3G voice,” he added. “This means the operators need to identify and replace those handsets.”

An industry insider with close contacts with operators across east Asia pointed to one of the main choke points: some subscribers are not inclined to switch handsets. Despite various promotions in Taiwan, for example, operators found many long-term users are not interested if offered free phones to move to 4G or 5G service.

Sometimes it’s not about the actual technology offering; it comes down to basic human behaviour, which can be difficult for operators to influence. They may want to reduce opex by closing legacy networks supporting a fraction of their total user base. But when a vocal minority of long-time customers expresses displeasure with a pending closure, the fallout can be damaging to the brand.

No doubt operators’ accountants have carried out detailed cost-benefit analysis: the cost of keeping a legacy network running appears to be worth avoiding the risk of a disruption in critical services.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.