Mobile operator Three UK today became the latest provider – after Vodafone and EE – to announce that it aims to switch off its legacy 3G (mobile broadband) network completely by the end of 2024. The move will free up resources to enable Three to focus on improving the 4G experience and rolling out 5G to more parts of the UK.
The expected move is particularly poignant for Three UK, which is a network that launched in 2003 positioning itself as the first UK-only 3G operator. But today, 3G has long since been replaced by vastly superior 4G services and not to mention the latest generation of gigabit-enabled 5G infrastructure, which is rapidly advancing as it is rolled out.
REMARK: Three, which claims to carry 28% of mobile data traffic in the UK – the average data usage per customer per month on their network is now 19GB (up 20% year-on-year) – predicts that the 5G will account for 35% of data usage by the end of 2022.
The announcement follows last year’s agreement between the government and mobile operators (here), which saw Vodafone, EE (BT), O2 (VMO2) and Three UK agree a national plan to phase out all existing 2G and 3G services by 2033. The associated spectrum will be reused to enhance modern 4G and 5G services.
However, mobile operators have long expected to retire 3G before 2G, largely because 2G is still quite widely used (e.g. smart meters and other low power IoT devices) and remains a useful fallback solution for mainly voice communications in certain difficult cases (eg rural areas).
With this in mind, rival operator EE is already planning to retire 3G – which accounts for just 2% of its data traffic – by phasing it out of its network in time for the end of 2023; it will then close completely in 2024 (here), while Vodafone appears to be following a similar path (here). Both also plan to shut down 2G services in 2025. Only O2 (VMO2) has yet to announce their plan, but we expect their 2G withdrawal to take longer as they are used by many meters smart.
David Hennessy, Chief Technology Officer at Three UK, said:
“3G launched the mobile revolution – and launched Three in the UK 20 years ago – but the future is undoubtedly 5G. As we continue to roll out our super-fast connectivity, not only upgrading our existing 4G sites but by building new 5G sites we will be able to stop our use of 3G on our network by the end of 2024.
As the leader in 5G deployment and the fastest network according to Ookla®, we are focused on achieving our goal of delivering better connectivity, every day, for every customer.
Naturally, disabling 3G will cause data connectivity issues for the minority of customers who still rely on a 3G-only device. On this point, Three UK notes that all 4G voice call devices supplied by Three since mid-2018 are Voice over LTE (VoLTE / 4G).
As the 3G turn-off date approaches, if a customer has an older 3G-only device or a non-VoLTE voice device, Three says it “will work with its customers to ensure they stay connected,” but they did not specify that. Nevertheless, each technology has its day and the hour of departure of 3G has come.
As above, the main benefit of this will be that any 3G compatible spectrum can then be assigned to 4G and 5G services, which tends to improve data speeds and increase coverage. Every cloud…