It was 1991 when 2G broke through the technological barrier and opened a world of possibilities with innovative wireless digital communication. 2G network moved ahead of 1G technology which drove analog voice transmissions across mostly-unsecured lines. It showed the capability to integrate features like call and text encryption, SMS and MMS messaging and picture transmission – at a speed nearly 25x greater than the speed of 1G.
Even today, after almost three decades, there is still some life left for the 2G network. Several applications including some critical infrastructure in smart cities rely on technology. But as 5G deployment is at its full speed around the world, it is likely that operators will look to phase out 2G to free spectrum. In fact, a number of countries (including smart cities) have already terminated or are in the process to terminate 2G services.
But is this the right time to switch off the 2G network? Let us learn from real-world case studies and research, discussed ahead.
2G Shut-down That Faced Challenges
Between 2011 and 2012, Korea Telecom (KT) determined to switch off its 2G network. In doing so, it faced delays imposed by the regulator KCC and a class-action lawsuit from its 900 subscribers. The denial to shut down 2G came in as there were still 5% of customer base i.e. 810,000 users reliant on the network.
On the contrary, operators such as Softbank and NTT Docomo in Japan were successfully able to reduce the 2G base before the final call. NTT Docomo was able to bring the base to 0.3% (202,000 users) during the shut down in 2011.
In KT’s case, the operator gave only three months’ notice to the subscribers about the plant to phase out 2G. On the other side, Docomo in Japan announced its intentions three years prior to the final shut down.
Therefore, in an attempt to reverse the suspension of the phase-out, KT offered numerous incentives for 2G users to move to 3G. This included exemption from 3G subscription fees for the first three months and reduced rates for two years. In addition, it also offered free devices and payment of KRW33,000 for a returned 2G device. There were other benefits as well such as loyalty points and air miles.
The AT&T Case
AT&T terminated its 2G GSM service in January 2017. The phase-out lead to a significant impact on the electronic security industry. Several 2G GSM radios were used for alarm signal communication to central station dispatch centres. To prevent service outages, the 2G GSM radios had to be replaced by newer generation radios.
At the same time, San Francisco Muni bus and train system had to face notable issues that lasted for several weeks. NextMuni service that predicted arrival times of buses and trains for commuters was supported by AT&T’s 2G network. After the switch off, the Muni vehicles with older systems could not show up on NextMuni or displayed incorrect information.
2G Switch Off Needs Careful Planning
A report from Real Wireless, an advisory firm for the UK Spectrum Policy Forum (SPF), throws light on the importance of 2G. It concludes that the elderly population in the rural area and several machine-to-machine (M2M) applications still depend on the technology.
And as so many applications (including critical infrastructure) and users are still dependants of 2G networks. The phase-out and migration will require careful and considered management in addition to long-term planning, as stated by John Okas, Real Wireless.
With this report, Real Wireless and UK SPF expect to deliver insights to the government, Ofcom and other stakeholders. This will help them make informed decisions and planning.
2G Will Keep Breathing In The UK Until The 2030s
Australia, Japan, Macau, Singapore, South Korea have already waved goodbye to 2G. And North America is all set to follow suit by 2020. However, in Europe, it is expected that 2G networks will remain and rather outlive 3G. As per a report, this is more likely to be the case in the UK.
By July 2019, 20 GSM networks of national mobile operators and four regional 2G-like technologies were shut down. Further, 15 GSM and 13 W-CDMA networks have been scheduled for phase-out before 2026.
But a report ‘Switching Off 2G’ revealed that the need for 2G services in the UK will continue until the 2030s. The UK has initiated a smart meter programme that has successfully deployed nearly one million meters per quarter. The initiative is scheduled to be accomplished by 2024. The meters installed have a lifespan of 15 years and currently, depend on 2G/3G networks for communications. Hence, considering the situation, 2G services will be required until 2039.
Sometimes, technology becomes the focus in such a manner that we tend to overlook the impact on the services people depend on. In this case, 2G technology still supports mobile phones used by vulnerable people in society. “We need to think through the alternatives for these services before shutting them down,” said Tony Lavender, chair of the UK SPF Steering Board.
Enhanced 2G Solution By Telit
A number of telecom operators find 2G not workable. But one of the industry-leading companies, Telit has predicted extended benefits of 2G. The company has introduced a smarter generation of 2G products that enhance the power consumption efficiency of the previous generation.
Telit’s new technology offers a great opportunity to application designers. They can use it in a stop-gap measure until narrow bandwidth IoT (NB-IoT) deployments are spanning their geographic targets in Europe.
Telit is offering service to update the existing 2G network framework across entire Europe. It has designed GL865 modules that can help customers leverage the power and coverage of 2G in the continent until NB-IoT is fully commercial.
2G Base In India
As per experts, 2G will still remain practical in India even after 3G is switched off – similar to the UK case. India has a huge installed base of 2G which makes the technology breathable until some more years to come.
Its importance exists until today as numerous IoT machines were originally done on 2G and GPRS. Hence, it’s clear that 2G will not be gone any time soon – in India. The biggest reason is that over 500 million people in India still rely on 2G networks. And they continue to use it with full satisfaction. The user base shift from 2G to 4G is happening though as more and more people are purchasing smartphones. Thanks to the falling prices of these smart devices, the 2G number is dropping.
That being said, going away from legacy technologies will unquestionably be a substantial transition that telecom operators need to consider. Because 2G as well as 3G, are still the most used technologies for deployed devices.
Another major factor is that telecom operators need to maintain technology as 2G/3G networks support voice services. This is theoretically contrary to 4G networks that do not support this service in circuit-switched mode.
As an efficient solution, VoLTE comes into the light for voice services compared to traditional networks. Nevertheless, VoLTE is not yet available on many 4G networks. Hence, until VoLTE is fully deployed, 2G/3G networks must keep breathing for voice services.