What’s happening with the 2G network closure in the UK?
To understand the reality around the 2G network closures in the UK and around the world, it's important to look at the evolution of mobile networks and how they relate to IoT applications today. We'll also look at the recent announcements for the UK market, which is impacted by smart metering in the UK.
First, some background.
The arrival of mobile networks opened the opportunity to reduce lost time and save costs. The most immediate way this was achieved was through the basic ability to call people, wherever they were. Time-saved and decisions made, rather than deferred until someone was in the office, quickly paid back the cost of “going mobile”.
The arrival of GSM, the second generation of mobile technology (2G) extended the same benefits to remote devices. It used to require a site visit to check a machine's status, make sure it was safe, or change its settings. With mobile networks, it became possible to do that remotely, over a dedicated link. Yet ‘telemetry’ was not something new, it had always been possible to monitor and manage devices using landline technology, but often the costs of putting the link in were prohibitive. The widespread coverage of mobile, and the reducing costs of it meant the opportunity could be realised – and so Machine to Machine, or M2M was born.
The advent of the Internet and ubiquitous connections to it has made the collection of data from remote machines easier and cheaper for businesses. With the Internet as the common element for connecting an ever bigger variety of devices, M2M morphed into the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT still relies heavily on radio or wireless networks. Whilst a range of other radio/wireless networking technologies have also been developed, cellular mobile remains the most widely available solution for reaching remote devices.
Where are we now with the shutdown of 2G?
Since GSM (2G) we have seen the arrival of 3G, 4G and now 5G. The focus in developing and delivering these technologies has been to enrich what can be done from a mobile phone. These benefits are of far less importance when the primary need is to get a reading from a meter or sensor, turn on a switch or simply know a machine is still working. The data shifting capacity of 3, 4 and 5G has made possible such things as watching high definition video on the phone but have no added benefit to most IoT applications, which happily run on 2G.
Smart phones that use 3G and 4G have diverted traffic away from 2G networks, reducing their importance to network operators significantly over the past 10 years. In turn this has led to some network operators shutting down their 2G networks, and others considering doing so. The success and coverage of 4G and the expected growth of 5G have led to the same questioning of the need for 3G networks. You can keep up to date on the 3G closure across the world by using our Global Mobile Network Availability tool.
Despite the rollout of 4G, 2G was still a critical capability for operators. Firstly, this was because initially there was no support for voice so 2G provided the voice capability needed. As the coverage of 2G was also well established it ensured that voice coverage could be guaranteed wherever 4G was deployed. With the arrival of VoLTE (Voice Over LTE – Long Term Evolution) the need for 2G to provide voice support was no longer necessary. Secondly, as the coverage of 4G networks have grown, and users have increasingly moved to 4G devices for both voice and data, the role of 2G has steadily diminished.
3G was the first step into a true multimedia mobile networking and for operators and equipment providers it was a prototype – an opportunity to learn what was needed for 4G. The arrival of 4G delivered far greater capabilities than 3G and better coverage. 4G was also the first mobile network that was fully IP, as is 5G. The operational complexity and cost of running both IP and non-IP networks presents a significant challenge that compounds the basic issues of capabilities and coverage.
All of this has meant there are opportunities to simplify networks, reduce costs and rationalise radio spectrum use more fully. Over time these have become irresistible, and made network closures inevitable.
Why is the 2G network closure important for me?
What is the position on 2G closures in the UK?
Vodafone and EE have already announced that their 3G networks will close in 2023. However, the position on 2G is far less clear.
On December 8th 2021 DCMS announced that following work with all UK mobile operators they were aiming to get 35% of the UK’s mobile traffic running over a shared infrastructure technology called Open RAN by 2030. As a part of the joint statement with industry the also covered the final sunsetting of 2G and 3G. This is because both legacy network technologies are incompatible with the use of Open RAN. It has therefore now been agreed by all operators that both 2G and 3G will be retired by 2033 and so no longer available for either new or existing connections by that date.
The core networks that support 3G also supports 2G. 4G and 5G share a different core network based on IP. That means that the pressure to achieve the cost savings from retiring the legacy core networks supporting 2G and 3G will increase significantly once 3G has been retired. This will be compounded by reducing traffic and revenues derived from legacy 2G networks – partly due to increased availability of 4G to meet coverage obligations, as well as basic device churn.
The current official position from operators running 2G in the UK is that the service will be retired “by 2033”, it is likely the pressure will be on to retire it as soon as possible to achieve costs savings and to enable the re-use of radio spectrum to support ever growing capacity demands.
That means that whilst a closure date of 2023 has been given for 2G it should be regarded as a backstop date, the very latest point at which it will close. Taking 3G closure as a model, it would be wise to assume that a two-year warning of 2G closure will be given, and factor that into your decision as to whether to use 2G for your IoT project.
UK Smart Metering
In the UK, Smart Metering is being deployed using 2G technology and rollouts to all UK homes and businesses are not expected to be complete before 2024. Electricity meters historically have a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years and there is no reason to expect smart meters to be any different.
The cost for energy companies to replace a meter is mostly in the ‘truck roll’, so it would be hard to justify the removal of a network technology until this generation of smart meters reaches the end of their predicted life. As that looks to be 15 years it seems 2G would need to be around until at least 2030, to achieve an economic payback.
With the announcements from DCMS on Dec 8th 2021 the future of this major IoT solution has been clarified. The timeline for economic payback has been guaranteed as it has been agreed across all operators that 2G will be sunsetted in the UK in 2033. This is primarily a date for O2 as Vodafone and EE have already given closure dates, and 3 has never had 2G. However, it is a backstop date and cost pressures on the mobile operators may trigger closure before that date.
More broadly, across the world operators will use a range of strategies to rationalise their network offerings - but it now seems clear that networks that have been relied on for IoT support in the past, have limited life, especially following the statements from DCMS in the UK. Anyone planning to use 2G only equipment as a part of their solution would be wise to keep an eye on how this develops. That will ensure they can plan to get the best return on their investment.
Is the 2G network still available in the UK?
Whilst a formal closure for all 2G and 3G services in 2033 has been announced in the UK, Vodafone and EE have announced they will be shutting their 3G networks in 2023. What that means is that from 2024 only 3 and O2 will have 3G networks in the UK. Following the announcement from DCMS in partnership with all UK mobile operators 2G along with 3G, will no longer be available in the UK after 2033.
Whilst no formal closure dates for 2G have been announced it is highly likley that operators will look to close 2G as soon as practically possible as it will allow them to retire core networks that both use. That means that 'by 2033' should be treated with caution and only seen as a backstop date. Closure could happen at any point before that date with a two year warning.
This is part of a wider network transformation to allow all operators to share a common network technology - Open RAN. Alternative mobile support for IoT that would best run on 2G is already being provided by Vodafone using NB-IoT and also by O2 using LTE-M, both based on 4G. You can identify the best technology to run your IoT application by using our Connectivity Navigator.
Are 2G networks going away?
Whilst a formal closure for all 2G and 3G services in 2033 has been announced in the UK, 2G and 3G networks are also being closed down across the world now. 2G was designed to support phone calls and limited data. The initial inability of 4G to support voice and superior coverage whilst 4G was rolled out kept 2G in place.
With the arrival of VoLTE (Voice over LTE – Long Term Evolution) the need for voice support from 2G was removed. Where 4G was deployed the roll out also closely matched that of 2G, so the need for coverage also reduced. The capabilities of 4G far exceed those of 3G now too.
To save operational costs and re-use radio frequencies for these new networks 2G networks will be phased out. Mobile operators around the world will be looking at the split of traffic across their networks to help them decide when to start the process.
You can see the latest info on 2G closures across the world at the bottom of this page.
What drives a Mobile Operator's decision to shut 2G down?
The need to retain 2G was driven by the initial inability of 4G to support voice. With that having been addressed by VoLTE (Voice over LTE – Long Term Evolution) the need for voice support from 2G was removed. 4G is also the first mobile service based wholly on IP networking – as is 5G. The increased operational complexity and cost of running two types of network to support 2/3G and 4/5G is a major driver to retire 2 and 3G compounding the basic capability and coverage issues.
The announcement from DCMS in partnership with the mobile operators in the UK on December 8th 2021 has added a further dimension. All parties are committing to using Open RAN, a technology that allows multiple operators to share a common network infrastructure, and they are aiming to get 35% of the UK’s mobile traffic using that by 2030. Driven by cost savings and also network supplier diversity opportunities it has also consigned legacy network technologies (2G/3G) to final retirement. This announcement also makes clear that the re-use of the spectrum to support capacity growth on 4G and 5G is another important opportunity.
How do I find out which networks still use 2G?
With over 800 Mobile Network Operators globally, keeping tabs on who has 2G available, and any plans to retire them is a challenge.
We have taken that challenge on, and we are gathering as much information on 2G closures and trying to keep this up to date as the market develops. That means it is worth checking back before making any decisions to deploy a 2G based IoT solution.