The sun is setting on 2G and 3G: what does that mean for Irish businesses?

Across Europe, network operators are phasing out 2G and 3G. It’s a gradual phase out that will largely be completed within this decade. With so many Irish businesses still reliant solely on these legacy networks, the time is now to start planning their next move.

For the most part 3G, which was historically focused on providing coverage in towns and cities, will be phased out first. As a baseline network providing widespread nationwide coverage, 2G will be phased out later in the decade. In Ireland, for example, Vodafone has begun sunsetting 3G this year, with Three following suite next year. Both operators will wait until after 2025 to begin phasing out 2G.

Generally in Europe, 3G is being switched off before 2G. This is mainly due to the early adoption and rollout of machine-to-machine (M2M) services operating on 2G in the early 2000s.  To this day, a significant number of large-scale utility services still operate on 2G. Because these contracts are so significant, they have, to a certain extent, dictated the ongoing operation of 2G networks.  

Why are operators shutting off 2G and 3G now?

As we continue to move towards an all-IP world, operators want to shut off redundant radio spectrum, and free it up for more valuable and advanced technologies. These include 4G, 5G, LTE Cat M (LTE-M) and Narrowband-IT (NB-IoT). Already, operators have hived off some of their 2G spectrum for their 4G networks, and the complete sunsetting of 2G and 3G is a continuation of that process.

In the consumer world 2G is long forgotten. But for organisations with legacy systems and hundreds of sites across the country 2G is still a favoured technology, mainly because of its pervasive coverage, and, it must be said, an element of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but also because the rollout of NB-IoT and LTE-M was quite fragmented, particularly in Europe. Some operators chose to roll out NB-IoT while others focused on LTE-M. In this divided environment, many businesses opted to stick with the status-quo, i.e. 2G, until the market crystallised.

But the reality is that this is all about to change and businesses need to think about what their next course of action is.  

What’s the next step for businesses still using 2G and 3G?

The challenge is somewhat double-edged. For organisations with existing connected IoT products or those who are rolling out new products, they are facing the imminent phasing out of existing networks, all while the longer-term options of NB-IoT and LTE-M are not yet fully bedded down. The difficulty is choosing the right communications module and telecoms partner to ensure a smooth transition from 2G to NB-IoT or LTE-M (which fall into the Low Power Wide Area Network, or LPWAN,  range of technologies).

Not every business is facing the same challenges. There are a couple of different scenarios organisations may find themselves in.  

Simple setup, already using packet data based connectivity: An organisation may have a relatively simple system setup (a GPRS or 3G modem for example) at a number of sites around the country. The sites may have a basic sensor that transmits data back to a base unit regularly. In this case, the organisation will likely only need to replace the modem with an LTE-enabled modem or possibly an LTE-M device. While this is a relatively straightforward swap-out, it will still take time and forward planning.  

Complex, legacy system with hundreds of sites: For a sub-set of customers, the phasing out of old circuit-switched services which were delivered over 2G and 3G brings an added complexity. While not particularly common, there are certain systems that rely on Circuit Switched Data (CSD). CSD is similar to two dial-up modems talking to each other, a technology that’s been largely replaced by packet data services (like GPRS, EDGE, 3G, 4G). Where CSD was introduced into large utilities or governmental agencies over 20 years ago, these services can and do still operate. These organisations have known what’s coming for a while now but moving off CSD is no easy task. The scale, cost and potential disruption it will cause to critical services is significant.

A note on SMS-based communications: Although SMS can be sent over 4G, the infrastructure that allows SMS to function sits in the 2G/3G world. Operators will soon be deciding how they will continue to deliver SMS services.  Some will keep the legacy infrastructure alive (purely for SMS)  while others will move to an IP-based method of handling SMS. For businesses using SMS as an out-of-band method of device management, or as their primary method of communication with no data service, this could be problematic. If they’re connected to an operator with no legacy method of handling SMS,  the only way to send or receive SMS is over a data session. In this case if they need to reboot a device because a data connection has gone down, their SMS commands won’t be delivered.

As is typical with any phasing out of a technology, it is not happening all at once. Businesses can expect to experience a gradual degradation of service: pockets of local 2G and 3G services may be turned off well in advance of any end date.

Although this is a gradual move, time is almost up. Businesses should already be putting a plan in place. In our next blog we’ll delve into more detail about the alternatives to 2G and 3G, and offer practical tips on what businesses can do to limit the effect this will have on their operations.

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