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UK 2G and 3G mobile networks to be switched off by 2033, Open RAN to carry 35% of traffic by 2030

Latest part of UK government’s £50m package to boost innovation in mobile technology and increase diversity in supply, will see acceleration in Open RAN, with 2G and 3G to be phased out by 2033

The UK’s 2G and 3G mobile networks will be phased out of use in the UK by 2033 as part of the government’s latest measures to not only support a smooth transition to faster mobile networks, but also to expand the diversity of telecoms supply chains in the wake of the ban of equipment from suppliers such as Huawei from 5G mobile network infrastructures.

The announcement comes hot on the heels of the introduction of the Telecommunications Security Act and forms part of the UK government’s £250m ambition to build a more competitive, innovative and diverse supply chain for telecoms, to reduce over-reliance on a few equipment makers.

In practical terms, the UK government and the leading UK mobile network operators (MNOs), Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media O2 and Three, have agreed on 2033 as the date by which all public 2G and 3G networks in the UK will be switched off. This act is intended to free up the required amount of spectrum to allow for the mass rollout of 5G and other future networks such as 6G.

The UK government sees these networks as providing the bedrock for use cases such as autonomous vehicles and drones, immersive virtual and augmented reality experiences, as well as innovations in tech to achieve net zero and improve healthcare. It added that its 5G Testbeds and Trials programme was already seeing next-generation networks transform industries – from smart farming to immersive reality experiences that enhance the UK’s top tourist destinations and 5G buoys that help coastguards save lives at sea.

The UK government believes a current barrier for new suppliers entering the UK’s 5G market is that they must, as it stands, offer 2G or 3G services because they are required by all four domestic mobile operators.

It will now set out a timeline for winding down these services following recommendations from the Diversification Taskforce and will allow new suppliers to enter the market by giving them certainty on when they can start building 5G networks across Britain.

In addition, the UK government points to wider benefits, including reducing the power needed to run multiple networks, being able to reuse spectrum and retiring old kit. It also makes running networks simpler as operators do not have to handle the challenges that arise from managing up to four networks, and even more as the comms industry moves towards 6G.

However, recognising the market realities of the UK mobile market, the government said it recognised that mobile operators were currently taking forward plans to introduce and expand their 5G networks while also undertaking work to extend coverage to the most rural parts of the UK. Therefore, it added, its ambition was not a mandate and realising it would require partnership and collaboration between government, mobile operators and the wider telecoms industry. Some individual operators have already announced plans to switch off their 2G and 3G networks earlier than 2033. Vodafone announced its plans to do so in September 2021.

“Mobile UK and its members welcome the government’s statement. Switching off 2G and 3G will enable operators to transition fully to more energy-efficient and high-capacity networks to the benefit of customers,” commented Hamish MacLeod, director of Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators. “We are also working with government and wider industry to support the maturity of new RAN [radio access network] solutions to open up further opportunities for innovation and new services in the future.”

Another essential element in realising these plans is to work with the MNOs on the roll-out of Open RAN built using a variety of different equipment suppliers through 5G mobile networks. The new plans include a joint ambition for 35% of the UK’s mobile network traffic to be carried over Open RAN by 2030 and £36m in funding for 15 projects to trial the technology across Scotland, Wales and England.

However, to reach its ambition, the UK government said it understood that more work was needed to develop the performance, economics and security of new RAN solutions so that they become competitive and viable for scale deployments.

The 15 winning consortiums in the Future Radio Access Network Competition (FRANC) will develop the technical solutions – such as radio transmitters, signal processing equipment, power management systems and the software – required to roll out Open RAN solutions across the UK quickly and attract new home-grown telecoms suppliers to the 5G supply chain.

The government is also announcing a cash injection of up to £15m for Sonic Labs, a test facility based in London and Brighton and run by Digital Catapult with the support of Ofcom to enable telecoms suppliers to test their early-stage products in real-world mobile network settings.

“Diversification and interoperability are key themes driving UK capabilities in advanced digital technology and we are pleased to expand Sonic Labs’ role in delivering fast, secure and reliable connectivity,” remarked Joe Butler, chief technology officer at Digital Catapult.

“We look forward to expanding access early next year to our testbed network to companies looking to experiment with and test new products and services. Today’s announcement will help us reach more businesses to prepare them for the digital future.”

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