UK 2G/3G Switch Off

UK Mobile Network operators have agreed to sunset (switch off) 2G and 3G by 2033.  The current situation is that 3G is being switched off in 2023-2025 followed by a later 2G cut off.  The operator ‘Three’ never had a 2G service having launched with 3G.

Removing the 2G and 3G signals makes their frequencies available for other purposes.  It also removes the pressure on operators to maintain increasingly ageing and diverse technologies. Many modern mobile operating systems and hardware including the iPhone 13 (and later models) have never supported 2G.  Recent Android builds allow 2G to be disabled.

The GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association) is a global organisation acting in the interest of mobile network operators.  Their 2022 report on the mobile economy in Europe states that only 2% of the UK 2021 connections were 2G and 1% 3G.  In contrast 90% of UK traffic was 4G and 7% 5G.  2G is used by some roaming options; situations where a device cannot reach its contracted network but will instead contact another who will manage the connection and pass on the (often inflated) costs to the original carrier.  This service has often been used to maintain international services although purchasing a local SIM plan is usually a cheaper and more efficient solution.

There will still be a few users of older mobile phones in the UK who routinely connect through 2G or 3G.   2G devices are still promoted by sellers such as some on Amazon marketplace and without clear warnings that their connectivity will be discontinued.  Users might choose 2G phones as for deliberate ‘retro’ effect, as a backup or an emergency device that is kept charged and connected but rarely used.  The bulk of current 2G connections are IoT networks in commercial, agricultural and industrial monitoring roles.  They are in use where a cabled or WiFi solution is not practical and include vehicle or animal tracking devices and parking machines. These are sometimes categorised as M2M (Machine to Machine). This explains why 3G is shutting down now but the older, slower 2G still has a limited lifespan.   Even so as networks move away from 2G and 3G it might become harder to maintain and support their ageing equipment leading to outages although these systems are technically still live.

For the time being 2G services are still being supported and even promoted.  The 2G service was good enough for simple data transfer and touted its wide availability as an advantage allowing the same hardware and software to work across many countries.   Anyone considering setting up a new IoT service should see any 2G option as a red flag.  Adopting a more modern technology will future proof an IoT solution and save costs in the long run.

Existing 2G connections need to consider how they will move forward.  As an example the 15.1 million 1st generation energy smart meters, installed with government funding, will only work on 2G networks.   More recent meters can be upgraded through the swapping out of their original SIM with a 4G card.  Other services face a similar choice; can the existing hardware be upgraded to work with 4G or will a new solution be required?  This might involve new technology supporting 4G.  Alternative wireless connectivity options are available but not throughout the UK.  Sigfox where UK coverage in rural areas is still poor.  LoRa available through TTN (The Things Network) is even less well distributed.  These technologies would not be suitable for any solution depending on widespread UK or European connectivity.   Existing 2G or 3G IoT systems can be upgraded by replacing the connection hardware by a 4G device.  In some cases such as smart meters or supply chain trackers that move with their subjects the transmitter may be so closely integrated with the data collector that upgrading the transmission alone would not be an option.

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