Impact of 2G switch-off highlighted in UK SPF report
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Real Wireless's John Okas

Despite the mobile’s industry’s current focus on 5G, the need for 2G services is likely to continue into the 2030s, given the extent to which they are relied upon by the elderly, rural users and machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, according to a report by Real Wireless; which was produced for the UK Spectrum Policy Forum (SPF).

The report – The Potential Impact of Switching Off 2G in the UK – highlight that 2G networks are still used by the elderly (many of whom don’t want to use touchscreen smartphones), tourists, users in some rural areas where only 2G coverage is available. It adds that while migrating voice users off 2G may be relatively simple and could be achieved though the sort of marketing and awareness campaign that was used to support the switching off of the analogue television services in 2007-12, migrating M2M communications is much more complex.

This is largely due to the UK’s smart meter rollout, which is currently installing around 1 million meters every quarter, and is expected to be completed in 2024. As these meters rely on 2G/3G connectivity and are intended to have a 15-year life, 2G services will be needed until at least 2039. In addition, the EC-mandated eCall system which automatically alerts the emergency services if a vehicle deploys its airbag also relies on 2G/3G network and has been mandatory since April 2018. Assuming cars stay on the roads for an average of around 15 years, 2G/3G will be needed for eCall until at least the mid-2030s. The report warns that it could take 2-3 years or more to plan and execute the transition of M2M services off 2G/3G networks and would require the mobile network operators (MNOs) to work closely with all elements of the M2M value chain.

The report agrees with the commonly held industry view that 3G is likely to be turned off before 2G. It also notes that the feasibility of 3G switch-off hinges on the speed at which users transition to phones that support voice over LTE (VoLTE) – without which 4G circuit-switched fallback (CSFB) to 2G or 3G networks will still be required; and there is still a significant volume of non-VoLTE-enabled 4G devices relying on 2G/3G for voice.

It advises that consumers have 1-2 years’ notice ahead of any switch-off, rising to 3-5 years’ for the M2M market.

The importance of timing is emphasised – the report notes the regulatory problems and subscriber lawsuits that South Korea’s KT faced when it started retiring its 2G network in 2011, when 2G users accounted for around 5 per cent of its customer base; in contrast, Japan’s NTT Docomo successfully reduced the number of its 2G users prior to sunset to just 0.3 per cent its base, in the same year.

Tony Lavender, chair of the Spectrum Policy Forum Steering Board said: “We sometimes focus on technology without fully understanding the impact on services people rely on. Among other things, 2G enables smart metering and the mobile phones used by many vulnerable people in society. We need to think through the alternatives for these services before switching them off. This report was commissioned by the SPF to highlight to Government, Ofcom and operators just what services will be affected, and the potential implications of a premature switch-off.”

John Okas, strategic wireless expert at Real Wireless added: “With so many applications and at-risk users still reliant on the ageing 2G networks, including critical national infrastructure, it’s clear that the switch off and migration is something that will need careful and considered management along with long term planning. It is also possible that new models could emerge whereby a single 2G network evolves to serve all of the M2M use cases – including smart meters and eCall. With the launch of this report Real Wireless and the SPF hope to provide insight to the Government, Ofcom and other stakeholders to help inform their future strategic planning.”

The full report can be downloaded here

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