Nic Serpell-Rand/Three

Three UK to switch off 3G network in two years’ time

End of UK’s first third-generation network planned as operator announces its investments in 4G and 5G gather pace, with next-gen network hitting new usage milestone, increasing by over 358% over the past year

In a move designed to free up resources to allow the operator to focus on improving the 4G experience and rolling out 5G as part of a more than £2bn commitment to the UK, Three UK has announced that the UK’s first 3G network will be switched off at the end of 2024.

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 act is intended to free up the required amount of spectrum to allow for the mass roll-out of 5G and other future networks such as 6G, which the UK government sees 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 to improve healthcare.

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

Currently, Three UK’s network covers 99% of the UK outdoor population with its combined 3G and 4G network, and carries 28% of mobile data traffic in the country. Yet the company also revealed that as demand for data is constantly increasing – the average data usage per customer, per month is now 19GB as at December 2021, up 20% year on year (YoY) – there is a need to continue investing in newer, faster and more efficient technologies.

The operator said that the announcement represents a significant milestone in UK mobile technology, with the target date just over two decades after Three UK launched 3G in the UK on 03/03/03, with the network going live later that month. Moreover, the company said the ability to switch off its 3G network has been enabled by significant investments in 4G and 5G in recent years, including the acquisition of the UK’s largest 5G spectrum portfolio.

Fundamentally, Three UK believes that turning off its 3G network will allow it to focus investments and spectrum resources on further improving 4G customer experience, while rolling out 5G, as it continues to build what it called a “big network for the UK”.

In explaining its move, Three UK highlighted the recent research paper, Mobile Britain 2022, in which it reported that 5G usage has exceeded 3G already, with the number of 5G devices on the Three UK’s network having quadrupled. It also noted that 5G shows no signs of abating, with Three predicting that 5G will account for 35% of data usage by the end of 2022.

Three expects the number of customers using 3G only handsets to continue to decline, as faster 4G and 5G devices are introduced the market. When customers upgrade their handsets, they will be able to take advantage of being on the UK’s fastest 5G network, as recognised by research firm Ookla.

All 4G voice calling devices provided by Three since mid-2018 are VoLTE capable and ready for the future of Three’s network, along with any 4G data-only devices. As the date 3G will be switched off approaches, if a customer has an older 3G-only device or non-VoLTE voice device, Three UK said that it would work with its customers to ensure they stay connected.

“3G kick-started the mobile revolution – and launched Three into the UK 20 years ago – but the future is undoubtedly 5G. As we continue to roll out our ultrafast connectivity, by not only upgrading our existing 4G sites but building new 5G sites, we’ll be in a position to switch off our use of 3G across our network by the end of 2024,” said Three UK chief technology officer David Hennessy.

“As the leader in 5G deployment and the fastest network as rated by Ookla, we are focused on delivering our goal of providing better connectivity, every day, for every customer.”

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