What happens with the shutdown of 2G/3G networks
The appearance of 5G will lead to the disappearance of 2G and 3G networks in order to take advantage of the spectrum they occupy
Currently all the focus of the mobile telecommunications sector is focused on the upcoming deployments of 5G, IoT ( Internet of Things ) and MEC ( Multi-access Edge Computing ), which will undoubtedly mark a before and after within the mobile field.
However, one of the issues that is not being discussed is the consequent disappearance of 2G and 3G networks.
Although, until now, the new generations of mobile telephony have been coexisting with the predecessor technologies (only the first analog generation has disappeared), the appearance of 5G will entail the disappearance of the 2G and 3G networks in order to take advantage of the spectrum they occupy. And although there are functionalities that allow sharing the spectrum between technologies ( spectrum sharing ), we must be aware that 2G/3G networks will end up being switched off.
The objective of this article is to evaluate the challenges that the shutdown of these mobile networks entails and our vision on how to deal with the dismantling and migration of services for service providers, companies and organizations.
Introduction. The different generations of mobile telephony
The second mobile generation, 2G, also known as GSM ( Global System Mobile Communications ), was the first digital generation and the first global cellular communications network standardized by the ETSI ( European Telecommunications Standards Institute ) and adopted in almost every country in the world. .
The main features of this generation are:
- Development, mainly, for the transmission of voice, fax and SMS services.
- Circuit switching architecture for making calls.
- Time division in transmission and reception through TDMA ( Time Division Multiple Access ).
- Separation of bands for emission and reception, using 200 KHz carriers.
- First network that allowed international roaming.
Over time, and mainly due to the emergence of the Internet, greater data transmission capacity was added to mobile networks through GPRS ( General Packet Radio Service ). GPRS can therefore be considered as a data service for GSM users, but using packet switching and multiplexing techniques. The transmission speed that can be achieved through GPRS is, as a theoretical maximum, around 170 Kbps.
With the increasing penetration of the Internet, and given the limitations of the 2G system in terms of data transport, 3G appeared in the 2000s, the third generation of mobile telephony, hand in hand with UMTS technology ( Universal Mobile Telecommunications System ).
The main features of this generation are:
- The core of the network is based on circuit and packet switching.
- It uses the CDMA ( Code Division Multiple Access ) access technique.
- Each of the carriers is assigned a bandwidth of 5 MHz.
- Possibility of making voice calls and data transactions.
- Data transmission/reception speed up to seven times faster than 2G.
With smartphones, their ecosystem of applications and the continuous evolution of the internet, the demand for data speeds on mobile networks is growing. That is why 4G appears, also known as LTE ( Long Term Evolution ), which is currently supporting the majority of our mobile data traffic. The main features are as follows:
- Network based on packet switching, only with an “ all IP ” solution.
- Carriers are offered with different bandwidths that can range from 4 to 20 MHz.
- Voice is introduced through the IMS ( IP Multimedia System ).
- End-to-end quality of service is implemented within your network.
- Use of techniques with multiple antennas in transmission and reception (MIMO).
With the new generation, the imminent evolution is going to be much greater and will also allow greater efficiency, higher data speeds and improved services.
This is expected to allow the entry of other verticals and offer new solutions that until now were mostly supported on proprietary networks (eg IoT solutions).
Currently all digital technologies coexist. But this is going to end and in the next few years we are going to witness the shutdown of the 2G and 3G networks.
Factors that influence the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks
The decision on which network to turn off first (2G or 3G), and how to do it, depends on multiple factors and can vary according to the interests of each operator or geographical area.
Some of the factors that influence the decision can be:
1. Coverage footprint: Turning off 2G or 3G networks can impact a reduction in coverage footprint, suddenly leaving customers without coverage, and consequently losing subscribers. Before making any decision, a thorough study of this impact should be carried out.
2. Devices/subscribers: another factor that intervenes is the current fleet of devices and the supported technologies.
- For example, M2M ( Machine To Machine ) devices, such as point-of-sale payment terminals, mostly rely on 2G networks. These devices are more difficult to migrate to a new technology, so the operators that offer these services to a large number of customers are opting, for the time being, to maintain 2G networks where they have a deployed base of M2M services.
- In addition, there are still many customers with mobile devices that only support 2G or 3G [mainly in countries with a poorly developed economy].
According to the latest Ericsson report ( Mobility Report June ), a decrease of close to 900 million 2G/3G subscribers is expected by 2024 worldwide, which represents a decrease of about 120% compared to 2018. But today nowadays the number of 2G/3G subscriptions is still very important.
3. Voice service: Operators often need to maintain traditional 2G or 3G networks to support voice services, since 4G technology does not, in principle, support such service in circuit-switched mode.
To remedy this, VoLTE [Voice over LTE – 4G] technology provides a more efficient solution for voice services than 2G and 3G technologies. But VoLTE is not available on many 4G networks [about 25-30% have not yet started or are in the early stages of deployment], so they have to maintain 2G/3G networks for voice services for now.
4. Regulatory constraints: in some cases there may be regulatory imperatives that influence the shutdown or maintenance of 2G and 3G networks. The regulation of spectrum and mobile services is the responsibility of each country, since there is no common regulatory framework worldwide.
5. Competition and supply of each country: the fact that some operators begin to shut down their traditional networks to make room for new technologies, and therefore new services, may indirectly force the rest of the operators to take similar actions.
State of the global shutdown of 2G/3G mobile networks, where do you start?
A key decision is whether to turn off the 2G network or the 3G network first. This decision will be closely linked to the factors listed above. There is, therefore, no single answer to this question, but, as will be seen below, it has different answers in each geography.
Everything indicates that the shutdown of 3G networks will happen before the shutdown of 2G networks. And as will be seen later, it seems that Europe will be a particular case and different from the rest of the world.
This is mainly due to the high deployment of M2M and IoT type services based on 2G technology. In addition, Europe is seeing the option of reusing 2G technology and using it for services such as NB-IoT ( Narrowband Internet of Things ), mainly due to its low cost and the availability of wide coverage.
In this sense, and as an example, Vodafone has already announced the shutdown of 3G throughout Europe between 2020 and 2021, while Deutsche Telekom has plans to shutdown in 2020. However, none of them, not even Telefónica, have made public plans for 2G shutdown.
As a curiosity, it seems that Swiss operators will be the first Europeans to shut down 2G networks. Sunrise already performed the shutdown in 2018, while Swisscom has it planned for 2020.
In Spain, at present, the operators are evaluating the most suitable way to proceed, and although some of them have not yet made their plans public, everything indicates that they will follow the European trend and the shutdown of 3G networks will be prioritized . In this sense, Telefónica recently announced that it plans to shut down the 3G network by 2025, while 2G will remain indefinitely.
Contrary to the trend in Europe, East Asia is the area that is currently leading the shutdown of traditional 2G networks versus 3G networks.
In some countries like Japan, Macao, Singapore or South Korea the 2G network is no longer available, while in other countries, like Taiwan or Thailand, the 2G network shutdown is very close.
As particular cases, and against this trend, China Mobile is shutting down its 3G network because it is based on TD-CDMA, which has no international presence. But on the other hand, China Unicom is shutting down its 2G network first.
It follows the trend in Asia, opting in general for prioritizing the shutdown of 2G technology. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have already switched off their 2G networks in Australia, and in New Zealand, Vodafone is the only operator still offering 2G service.
The panorama is radically different from Europe and is closer to Oceania and Asia. In the US, 3 of the 4 major operators (ATT, Verizon and T-Mobile) have already turned off the 2G network, or have set a date to do so. The same is happening in Canada, with Telus and Bell having already switched off their 2G network.
Mexico will be the last to shut down the 2G network, although both Movistar and ATT have already announced that they will do so during 2019.
These markets are less developed than the previous ones and will not lead the way, when it comes to 2G or 3G shutdown. Therefore, it is difficult to forecast any kind of scenario at this time. But in general terms, the predictions are that 3G will be shut down sooner and that 2G networks will have a little more life.
The reasons are the high number of 2G devices, the fact that 3G devices also support 2G, and that 2G will be able to be used as CS-Fallback for 4G networks or devices without VoLTE. It also points to the existence of GSM until 2030.
Central and South America
The trend is not entirely clear and is in a definition process. Colombia is one of the countries that, at the moment, is leading the issue of 2G/3G shutdown analysis, where the regulator is defining a roadmap for the 2G shutdown or, failing that, taking advantage of technology for use as IoT or M2M.
On the other hand, in Brazil everything seems to indicate that, due to the use of M2M applications on the 2G network, these will be the last to be turned off and, therefore, the 3G networks will be the first as 4G coverage is extended.
As a summary, the following table summarizes the prioritization forecast in the shutdown of 2G/3G networks by geographical area:
How to face the dismantling of 2G/3G
From our experience with operators and manufacturers, large companies and public administrations, in this section we are going to present our vision on how to deal with the dismantling by all those involved: operators, on the one hand, and companies or administrations that use telecommunications networks, for another.
The decision on the dismantling of one or another technology, and the subsequent execution of the shutdown, goes through three main phases:
- Identification of scenarios and analysis of possible migration scenarios, Business Cases and risks of each scenario.
For this evaluation, factors such as the following are analyzed:
- Number of devices that only support the technology(s) to decommission.
- Geographic distribution by area of interest.
- Income from the devices that support each of the technologies, including the subscribers themselves and, also, those from roaming or roaming .
- Possible contractual or regulatory obligations.
- Operation and maintenance contracts, and remaining useful life of equipment.
- Traffic trends and devices of the different technologies, for voice and data services.
- Analysis of excess capacity in other technologies.
- Financial analysis: cash-out , depreciation, etc.
- Selection of the best scenario for decommissioning. Based on the previous analysis, the optimal scenario is selected and the following are detailed:
- Achievable savings and benefits with decommissioning: energy, operations and maintenance, spectrum reuse, equipment resale, etc.
- Losses due to shutdown and additional costs: points such as losses due to roamers not entering the network, possible penalties for loss of coverage, discounts for terminals, etc. are evaluated.
- Additional investment, such as equipment dismantling cost, spectrum refarming , SIM changes, etc.
- Risks of the selected scenario: customers, competition, regulatory risks, etc.
- Shutdown plan. With the scenario already selected and justified, the action plan is defined to proceed with the effective shutdown, including:
- Governance model that will control the shutdown.
- Client migration plan.
- Refarming plan for the reuse of the spectrum for other technology.
- Dismantling plan of the network to be dismantled: phases and regions.
- Mitigation plans for possible risks.
Companies and Public Administrations customers of the networks
On the other hand, from the point of view of the 2G/3G network customer, they must analyze which applications and services are supported on the 2G/3G networks that will be affected by the shutdown and must migrate to new technologies.
Examples of applications that will typically be affected are those that provide M2M/IoT services, such as payment terminals (POS terminals), security alarms, water/electricity/gas meters, vehicle fleet management systems or sensors in factories or industrial processes.
Here again the decision on how to proceed goes through three major phases:
1. Identification of solutions. Analysis of the affected services that run on the 2G/3G network and evaluation of alternative solutions, considering both technical and operational aspects and economic impact:
- Identification of affected services.
- Detailed inventory of the equipment affected by each service.
- Identification of alternatives: new devices with new technologies.
- Technologies available to migrate services: 4G, 5G, Sigfox, LORA…
- Analysis of coverage footprints of each technology with respect to the needs of each service.
- Other impacts: supply services, operation and maintenance, adaptations in systems…
- Definition of possible new supply, operation and maintenance processes.
- Short, medium and long term economic analysis.
2. Selection of the best scenario for the migration of services to a new technology, which includes:
- Technical and economic justification of the selected solution.
- Processes for migration of devices and platforms (if applicable).
- Risks of the selected scenario.
3. Implementation and deployment of new devices and possible adaptation or renewal of platforms. Finally, a plan for the migration is defined:
- Government model that will control migration.
- Migration plan.
- Mitigation plans for possible risks.
- Selection and contracting of suppliers: devices, platforms, substitution/provision services, operation and maintenance services, possible bidding processes…
- Relationship models with the different actors involved.