Will the UK turn off its 2G networks in 2017?

US mobile operator AT&T plans to switch off its 2G network within the next five years. Will the UK will follow suit?

Mobile networks have been the focus of a lot of regulation, debate and rumour in the past few years, but this has mainly focused on the strengthening of existing 3G networks or the future of 4G deployments.

However, whilst all the technical developments and regulatory arguments have been going on, the trusty 2G network has continued plodding along, carrying the majority of the UK’s phone calls and keeping the nation in touch with one another – albeit in a slower way than its successors.

Whilst the future of the 2G has barely been referenced in the UK, it seems on the other side of the Atlantic, operators have been plotting its demise.

Today US firm AT&T announced it was planning to switch off its 2G network by 2017. The company currently holds two spectrum bands in the US – 850 MHz and 1900 MHz – and claims only 12% of its current customers are based on that portion of the network. This number continues to drop each year and, as a result, the operator has even stopped selling 2G-based handsets altogether.  

AT&T believes by getting rid of the 2G network, it will have more spectrum to use for innovative technologies and to speed up customer networks – something it hoped to do with the frequencies from its failed acquisition of T-Mobile USA if it had gone through.  

Meanwhile, in the UK, two major operators – T-Mobile and Orange – merged to become Everything Everywhere, while partnerships have come to the forefront with Vodafone, O2 and 3. But there has been no mention of switching off 2G networks. Why?

“The first reason is coverage,” said Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca. “Our outer lying and remote areas are only covered by 2G and, when compared to the US, are less remote – rural communities rather than one off properties in the middle of the desert or on the side of a mountain.”

“The opportunity to achieve 100% coverage, or as close to that as we can, is much higher when leaving the 2G network on in the UK; something that could never be achieved in the US.”

Even within more urban and populated areas that have substantial 3G coverage, there is still a large dependence on the reliability of 2G.

“A lot of people don’t realise when they make a call on a 3G phone in a 3G area, it is actually using the 2G network,” said Bamforth. “This still goes on a lot… probably as much as 80% of the time calls are moved to the 2G network to free up 3G for mobile data.”

“That could change in the 4G world, but having seen a number of these next generations come in and having heard the promises of the past, I am not so sure.”

It is not just mobile phone users who will be impacted by 2G's demise. The growth in machine to machine (M2M) technologies has “smart” products needing some sort of connection to interact with one another, and mobile networks could be the answer.

If over the next few years M2M really embraces 2G as a connection, then switching it off would mean a rethink for the entire industry.

“With M2M though it does depend on how successful products are,” added Bamforth. “The only one really on anyone’s radar and doing well in terms of wide adoption on a consumer basis in the UK is smart metering.”

“Having these depend on cellular networks is a real stretch and if that went to other operators with different technologies [mobile operators] may not spend so much time on M2M and be less reluctant to switch the 2G network off.”

Computer Weekly contacted all the UK’s major mobile operators, but only Vodafone came back with an answer, saying it was "focused on creating a competitive market for 4G at the moment" so was "not looking at ending current services."  

The fact is, the UK has much stronger reliance on the technology than the US. Across the pond, there is a much clearer and faster moving route to next generation 4G networks and having such a plan in place gives operators better foresight as to when 2G will no longer be needed.

The UK has only just agreed on the auction parameters for 4G spectrum. Availability of customer facing technologies are not expected until half way through 2013 at the earliest. As such, it is hard to come to a conclusion about when 3G and 4G combined will be good enough to negate the earlier network and set out a timeline for when it could be turned off.

Even with its head start and the fact it is no longer selling 2G phones, AT&T has given itself five years to get rid of its 2G network and even stated it will help those users still dependent in 2017 to move to more modern offerings.

UK operators too will need a long term strategy if they are to ever turn off their 2G deployments, so if it hasn’t even passed the discussion phase, as we strongly suspect, it is highly unlikely we will be seeing the switch off in 2017 like in the US.  

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