Vodafone UK to begin 3G switch-off in 2023

UK mobile operator gives notice that it will begin to retire its legacy network in a year’s time, with 4G and 5G networks to get coverage and speed boost from repurposing of 3G spectrum

Just weeks after the UK government introduced the Telecommunications Security Act, which included a provision to close down legacy networks to free up the required amount of spectrum to allow for the mass roll-out of 5G and other future networks such as 6G, Vodafone UK announced that it will begin retiring its 3G network in 2023.

In December 2021, the UK government and the leading UK mobile network operators (MNOs) – Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media O2 and Three – agreed on 2033 as the date by which all public 2G and 3G networks in the UK will be switched off.

The UK government sees 2G and 3G 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 also said its 5G Testbeds and Trials programme is 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.

Vodafone’s move is part of a network modernisation programme to offer a strengthened and improved 4G and 5G experience for all customers, with the intention of enabling customers across more parts of the UK to access more reliable connectivity via the Vodafone network. The 3G network, retired after 17 years and nearly 500 billion minutes of calls, currently accounts for less than 4% of the data used on Vodafone’s network, compared with more than 30% in 2016.

As it made its move, the company stressed that the pandemic had demonstrated the importance of technology that keeps people connected. It said healthcare, education and the economy all depend on people across the UK having a reliable data connection and that the transition to 4G and 5G for every Vodafone customer is a vital part of ensuring everyone has the digital access they need.

The retirement of Vodafone’s 3G network is also an important part of the firm’s strategy to reach net zero by 2027, with the company stressing that modern 5G networks are more than 10 times as energy efficient as old 3G equipment.

“We’re building the UK’s most reliable mobile network and focusing on the technologies that best connect our customers and have the least impact on the environment”
Ahmed Essam, Vodafone

“We’re building the UK’s most reliable mobile network and focusing on the technologies that best connect our customers and have the least impact on the environment,” said Vodafone CEO Ahmed Essam.

3G has connected so many customers over the past 17 years, but the future is 4G and 5G. We’re going to be focused on giving customers a faster and more reliable mobile experience, and minimising our impact on the environment by taking away a layer of our network that uses inefficient equipment.”

The operator has begun a campaign of communication to inform customers of its move and said it would continue to share information, advice and guidance to customers to ensure they can stay connected during the changes next year. “Our goal is for everyone to stay connected, and we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure that’s the case,” added Essam.

“During the campaign, we’ll be asking customers not just to make sure that their own phone supports 4G and 4G Calling, but also to check in on friends and family. There are people who aren’t confident with technology, and we want to ensure everyone is getting the help they need, so that no one is left behind.”

As part of the campaign, Vodafone is partnering with The Good Things Foundation, an organisation that works to develop sustainable solutions to end data poverty and fix the digital divide, and other third parties, to ensure the campaign reaches the most vulnerable consumers.  

“We support Vodafone with this important campaign to ensure that every consumer can stay connected during the change,” said Good Things Foundation group chief executive Helen Milner.

“Access to a digital connection is vital, especially for the most vulnerable people in our society. With the move away from 3G, people risk being disconnected, locked out and left behind. That’s why we’re so pleased to be working with Vodafone to ensure as many people as possible continue to have the essential digital access they need.”

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