[As at Mar '23]
As new technologies and spectrum bands are enabled, we often get asked when older services (such as 2G & 3G) will be throttled, switched off or retired. With 4G and 5G being steadily deployed globally, the process of retiring 2G and 3G networks is well underway in many countries and regions. Millions of IoT devices globally will need to be transitioned to LTE, 5G & NB-IoT spectrum.
Mobile networks do not usually disclose "official" plans on when 2G or 3G services will be sunset, until the decision is formalised, after which they will give a few months notice. This must also be approved by the regulator (ICASA), which makes getting "official" answers and set dates tricky. In reality, 2G and 3G spectrum will be actively re-farmed over time to drive growth in 4G & 5G services.
There are however some announcements that gives some insight into network operator's plans regarding 2G & 3G sunsets
Future-proofing hardware modem modules, for example 2G & NB-IoT or 2G & LTE becomes an important decision for new device deployments.
The current suggestion by mobile networks around modem and chipset choices is to rather use 4G or NB-IoT, and where possible, to use modules that have fallback to 2G/3G. This will allow for full functionality during the transition.
The South African Government has also announced their plan to prohibit licensing of 2G devices as part of their next-generation radio frequency spectrum draft policy. This is still to be published for public comment, and expect a lot of changes as mobile networks engage with the regulator, but the draft proposes the following:
Here is a summary of some latest comments made by South African mobile networks regarding 2G & 3G sunset:
2G shutdown scope:
- No new connection will be allowed on the Vodacom network after a certain date, subject to Vodacom official communication.
- 2G voice services will be the 1st to be shut down
- 2G spectrum will be re-farmed for 5G services, as new spectrum becomes available
- There will be a limited 2G capacity to support critical & emergency services
- Rural areas and smaller towns will probably be sunset first, before urban areas
It is expected that 2G services will not be shut down in areas where NB-IoT & LTE has not been activated yet. More on NB-IoT connectivity here.
Telkom has already shut down most 2G services.
Plans to shut down 3G before 2G.
MTN plans to start decommissioning 3G in 2025/26.
How to minimise the effects of 2G & 3G sunset on your IoT device deployments
2G networks typically have been in commercial operation for more than two decades and have offered an unparalleled platform for deploying national and international high-quality IoT solutions. Many IoT solutions have long lifecycles often of a decade or more which means there are still large volumes of devices that are 2G-only. Therefore, action needs to be taken to ensure continued operation of IoT applications as 2G and 3G networks are being sunset.
Once a 2G or a 3G sunset takes place devices that are built for 2G or 3G will become completely inoperable. This will lead to customers suffering and this may also happen when a service transitions to an alternative network technology. The move will involve new software and hardware and cause downtime, even in phased roll-outs so careful planning is essential to minimise impacts on customers and on the service and business reputation.
There are many examples of transitions that have not gone smoothly. One municipal transport system in San Francisco experienced a fortnight of business interruption because it relied on the 2G network beyond its sunset date, even though it had been given five years of notice of the upcoming sunset.
This highlights the complex inter-relationships in IoT between network, hardware and software and demonstrates that moving on from 2G and 3G is not always a simple upgrade path.
A first step should be to review the installed base to understand what devices need to be upgraded and to create the right strategy for cost efficient transition.
Next, selecting sufficiently future-proofed hardware to improve the chances of benefiting from upcoming technical innovations should be a priority. There are several alternatives to 2G and 3G that are available or soon to be offered and the relative merits of these should be carefully assessed, alongside the likely software and hardware developer ecosystem – it’s not productive to choose a technology that nobody is developing devices or apps for.
Given that the shutdown affects a substantial number of currently operating devices, steps should be taken to prevent similar situations arising in the future. It makes little sense to migrate from 2G to 3G for this reason, so assess carefully the expected lifespan of the technology you select alongside the deployment duration you are planning.
The sunset of 2G and 3G has not been an overnight, unexpected development and the cellular industry has created replacement technologies that offer good alternatives to common IoT connectivity needs. These take the form of 4G and 5G networks but also technologies that have been designed specifically for IoT devices. These technologies, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE-M, were created to support the needs of IoT applications that are low cost, consume less data, have long battery lives and can operate in locations that are hard to reach, such as in remote areas or underground.
These capabilities will open up opportunities for new applications in agriculture, utilities, logistics and other industries. Moreover, as 2G and 3G networks are being phased out globally, NB-IoT and LTE-M are the apparent replacements.
Latest Media Articles on the topic:
(On the other side of the, um, spectrum... For information about NB-IoT adoption and rollout please see this article)
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