The closure of 3G networks is growing rapidly across the world. To understand why this is happening, and the reasons for closure we need to look at the historical importance of 3G and how the mobile world has changed since it launched.
How did we get to 3G?
Mobile phones personalised voice communications – you could call a person, not a building. It coincided with the rapid growth of data communications too, with dial-up internet access breaking data communications free from the corporate IT department.
However, the range of uses and applications that PC based internet access was being used for – such as video streaming – continued to grow. This meant to keep pace the 3G standard also needed to be developed in life.
It wasn’t just a matter of adding bandwidth. 3G had initially adopted an asymmetric approach – you had higher speed links for downloads than you did for uplinks to the network. This is fine for web browsing, but increasingly a challenge for two-way video calls, or uploading images to social media.
That meant 3G was always an incomplete standard that spent its time trying to keep pace with the rapidly evolving way data was being used. Piecemeal updates tried to meet these ever-growing expectations as data rates increased, antennae improved, and network architectures evolved.
Where 3G ended was a long way from where it started, and much had been learned by the network operators and equipment vendors.
Why are 3G networks being shut down?
3G had been an evolution of 2G standards in terms of network architecture and service, 4G was a revolution - it was mobile re-engineered from the ground up. 4G took the learning from 3G and delivered a more consistent, robust, and capable platform for personalised multimedia data communications.
The success of 4G and consequent growth of network coverage has reduced the need for 3G. In the UK the network operators were required to commit to a network coverage obligation for 4G too – something they had to do for 2G, but never for 3G.
4G was also the first fully IP mobile network architecture, and the basis for all future generations of mobile networking. This was consistent with the same change to IP in fixed networks. 2G and 3G were therefore both now homed on a legacy network technology, so both candidates for retirement to deliver cost reductions for the operators. That retirement also offered the opportunity to re-use the radio spectrum to meet growing demands as mobile data use was growing dramatically.
What's happening now with the shutdown of 3G?
Despite the success of 4G for multimedia, initially, there was no support for voice calls. That meant 2G was still needed to give users and their devices that basic capability.
With the arrival of VoLTE (Voice Over LTE – Long Term Evolution) the need for 2G to provide voice support was no longer necessary. Alongside the growth in coverage for 4G to rival both 3G and 2G the case for keeping either legacy network was removed. Therefore, we are now seeing increasing numbers of operators globally deciding to remove both 2G and 3G.
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. Therefore, we are now seeing increasing numbers of operators globally deciding to remove both 2G and 3G.
Based on the announcements so far, shutting down 3G is being prioritised over shutting down 2G. For example, in the UK, Vodafone and EE have announced they are planning to shut 3G down in 2023, before their planned closure of 2G.
Why is 3G being shutdown ahead of 2G?
Whilst this may seem a curious decision it is because there is still a greater customer dependence on 2G over 3G. It isn’t just about the really good coverage and voice capability of 2G. 2G also supports around 60% of the mobile based IoT devices that we depend on – for example alarms, vehicle trackers and smart meters.
Mobile operators are rolling out network technologies to support the migration of these critical IoT devices away from 2G. As a part of 4G there are two services - LTE-M/Cat M1 and NB IoT/NB1- that deliver everything 2G did, with further specific benefits for these applications as well. Anyone either using 2G for their IoT applications or looking to use it now would be well advised to look at alternatives.
What will the legacy of 3G be?
3G has performed a critical role in helping us to take our increasing dependence on the Internet mobile. It has personalised data in the same way the mobile personalised voice calls - "I want to speak to a person, not a building".
To some extent, 3G has also been the victim of its own success - an evolving patchwork standard setting ever-growing expectations. Its role in the transition from basic voice devices to the device that now delivers an experience rich enough to make it the sole device for some people is critical – but as they say, all good things must come to an end.
We have made it our mission to bring you the latest information on what networks are available around the world and which ones are planned for closure.
To find out the latest changes on 3G availability check out our Global Mobile Network Availability Tool before you commit to any IoT solution based on 3G.