What Irish businesses need to do now as 2G and 3G are being phased out

With the phasing out of 3G and 2G currently underway it’s time for businesses reliant on these technologies to act. Here is our guide to what the alternatives are, and what steps businesses need to take now.

By now businesses know that 2G and 3G are being phased out. Ideally they should already be formulating a plan to replace any 2G or 3G equipment, and choosing a new radio technology. With the phasing out of 3G already happening and 2G to follow shortly, time is of the essence.

What are the first steps businesses need to take?

Assess your on-site equipment: First things first, you should do an assessment of all your sites. Identify the equipment at each location (or vehicle, asset, etc.). You will be able to pinpoint your sites that are limited to 2G/3G based on the make and model of the modem or router at the site. Make a note of these sites.

Does your application rely on 3G? You will also need to figure out if your application relies on 3G or does it perform poorly on GPRS (possibly due to lower speeds or higher latency).  If that’s the case, you will begin to run into issues quickly as 3G is shut down. Even though 2G will be around for a little bit longer, some applications that already struggle on 3G may well be too much for a GPRS (2G) data connection to handle.

What are the alternatives to 2G and 3G?

Once you’ve assessed your on-site equipment, you’ll have an idea of the scale of the challenge you face. In some cases you may be able to switch over to 4G pretty seamlessly, if your package plan is enabled for 4G (which is likely the case in 2023) and your equipment supports it. Generally, 4G coverage is on a par with 2G, which makes it a suitable alternative with appropriate coverage.

If your equipment has been in the field for decades, it will not be up to the challenge of supporting new technology. This means you will need a full equipment swap out. At this point you will need to make some crucial decisions: which radio technology best suits your requirements.

You have three main options –

  • 4G/LTE,
  • LTE Cat-M, and
  • NB-IoT.

Let’s take a detailed look at the pros and cons of each.

4G/LTE pros

In terms of getting up and running quickly, this might be the easiest option. You’ll also benefit from faster data speeds and lower latency than you would have had previously with 3G or GPRS. The 4G/LTE coverage footprint is excellent and networks are widely available globally. If you rely on roaming across multiple networks, this will likely stay the same with a move from 2G/3G to 4G but check with your carrier to confirm 4G is available on networks/countries where your equipment roams.

An LTE Cat-1 device is a good option if you don’t require high speeds. Even though it is the slowest category of LTE it offers 10 Mbps downlink and 5 Mbps uplink speeds – more than enough if your application has been running on GPRS/3G. LTE Cat-1 devices are at the lower-cost end for LTE equipment and they don’t need any special radio network deployed; if you can get standard 4G/LTE signal then the LTE Cat-1 device can also connect.

4G/LTE cons

4G/LTE typically consumes more power than LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT. It is also more expensive when it comes to the bill of material costs. When it comes to future proofing your system, LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT have been included in the 5G specifications meaning they can be delivered over a 5G network. This would allow for a much easier transition to 5G and the potential sun-setting of 4G networks should not have much impact on NB-IoT or LTE-M devices. I wouldn’t expect it to happen any time soon, but eventually, 4G will be phased out too.

LTE Cat-M pros

LTE Cat-M belongs to the Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) category, and is designed specifically for IoT. It uses a minimum amount of power; an important point to consider if your device is running on battery power. Compatible devices are relatively slow compared to traditional LTE and you can expect speeds of up to 1Mbps downlink/uplink. Because it supports mobility, or handover between cell sites, it’s a credible option for mobile devices including HGV telemetry or high-granularity trackers.

LTE Cat-M cons

LTE Cat-M networks are currently being rolled out across Europe with some networks at a more advanced stage than others so you may encounter coverage dead zones. Unlike standard LTE, LTE Cat-M requires a separate deployment, this means having 4G/LTE connectivity does not guarantee that LTE Cat-M will also be available. Eventually, roaming between LTE Cat-M networks will be the same as 4G/LTE but you may still run into some issues with agreements not being finalised yet.   

NB-IoT pros

NB-IoT also belongs to the LPWAN category. It has been designed to keep bill of material costs low and to operate at lower data speeds, even where coverage may be poor. If you have a large volume of devices and you have control over the design, the lower cost of components may make a significant difference. NB-IoT is also power-efficient, making it a solid choice for battery powered devices which need to last for years. While it’s been touted as operating with a lower signal strength than LTE Cat-M, in practice we’ve found that there’s not much difference between the technologies.

NB-IoT cons

NB-IoT doesn’t support mobility between cell sites. While you can use it in a mobile device it does not hand over between sites the way a standard LTE or LTE Cat-M does. This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker though: your NB-IoT connection typically transmits very short bursts of data at intervals of minutes, hours or days. When it comes to roaming agreements, things get a little complicated: NB-IoT must be enabled between networks. It’s not enough to have an existing 4G/LTE arrangement – integration and testing are required between two operators to deliver a roaming NB-IoT experience. This makes it more complicated and slower for operators to roll out international roaming agreements.

When things become a little bit more complicated

If you are already using a packet-data service such as GPRS/EDGE or 3G/HSxPA, the sun-setting of 2G and 3G means you will simply need to test and select a new device (or likely a newer version of your existing equipment), then manage swapping equipment in the field. While this can be time consuming an costly, if you start now the swap out could possibly be included as part of an annual service call or vehicle check.

Things get a bit more complicated when solutions are based on Circuit Switched Data or they rely on SMS. You may need to replace the entire solution from end-to-end with a fully IP-based solution. While this will inevitably lead to an initial capital outlay, there are considerable benefits to moving to an IP-based system.

First and foremost, operating costs will come down. You will also be able to boost network resilience and enjoy better system support. Depending on what you’re using your system for, you can benefit from a richer data set and more real-time information.

As a connectivity professional focusing on IoT for over 20 years I think LTE Cat-M is a smart choice for good all-round connectivity features. It will tick the box for most businesses. While it may consume more power than NB-IoT and may not have the same bandwidth as 4G/LTE, it has advantages across the board. You can purchase relatively low cost LTE Cat-M modules and benefit from some extended battery life. Its downlink/uplink performance is on a similar level to 3G. Its coverage penetration is the same as NB-IoT and global roaming will be similar to 4G/LTE.

That said, every use-case is different and you may find yourself weighting cost, bandwidth, coverage and power consumption very differently.

As you prepare your business for the phasing out of 2G and 3G and need advice on what your next steps should be, you can contact Thinglabs on +353 (0)44 967 5000 or info@thinglabs.ie.

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