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 by Vodafone and EE to close their 2G and 3G networks 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.

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?

Firstly, IoT modules – a key building block for any solution - that use 2G are significantly cheaper than those used for 4G. Secondly, the radio frequencies used by 2G, in particular, have the widest coverage capability. This might be important for applications deployed in remote areas. 2G will also reach further into buildings and other structures far better than 3G or 4G.

What is the position on 2G closures in the UK?

Vodafone and EE have now both announced that they will close their 2G networks in 2025. More significantly they have also announced they will close their 3G networks next year - 2022.

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 will be around until at least 2030, possibly longer.

Exactly how the need for 2G for Smart Metering will be reconciled with a drive to rationalise UK networks was looked at by The Spectrum Policy Forum, who commissioned a report   - The Potential Impact of Switching Off 2G in the UK -from Real Wireless to explore the issues and options. In June 2020 OFCOM stated in response to a Freedom of Information request that they were still at an early stage in defining the best way forward. The announcements from Vodafone and EE seem to suggest a way forward has been defined.

Operators across the world 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.  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?

Vodafone and EE have announced they will be shutting their 2G networks in 2025 and their 3G networks in 2022.  What that means is that from 2023 only 3 and O2 will have 3G networks in the UK. This of course assumes that in the meantime they will not be following Vodafone and EE’s lead. From 2026, using the same assumption, only O2 will offer 2G – 3 having never deployed 2G. Alternative mobile support for IoT is being provided by Vodafone using NB-IoT and also O2 using LTE-M, both based on 4G.

Are 2G networks going away?

2G and 3G networks are 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.

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.

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.

Global 2G network planned closure dates

This information has been gathered on a 'best efforts' basis. If you believe something needs updating please send us an email.

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