Getting ready for the 2G & 3G sunset

Author : Scott Brenton | IoT Technology Director | Solid State Supplies

01 October 2022

As UK network operators prepare to switch off 2G and 3G networks, Scott Brenton, IoT Technology Director at value added electronics distributor, Solid State Supplies talks to EPDT about the impact this will have on companies who are still using legacy equipment – and how to prepare for the change…

This article was originally featured in the October 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Technology moves forward – this is an unstoppable truth. The transition to 4G, 5G and beyond is already well underway, bringing faster download speeds and increased reliability. Manufacturing and industrial companies are capitalising on this with investment in IoT (internet of things) systems, robotic process automation, and augmented & virtual reality.

At the end of December 2021, the UK government unveiled an agreement with primary UK mobile network operators to phase out existing 2G and 3G signals by 2033. In May 2022, mobile operator, Three UK joined Vodafone and EE in announcing that its legacy 3G network will be completely switched off by the end of 2024. However, many businesses are still unprepared for the sunset of 2G and 3G devices – and a startling number are still dependent on legacy networks. Preparations need to be made quickly, or else they will be caught off-guard once access to legacy networks is no longer possible.

The benefits of sunsetting 2G & 3G networks

There are compelling reasons to switch off 2G and 3G networks. The radio technology has been superseded since its introduction 40 years ago, with modern microprocessors allowing much more to be done in software, and power amplifiers improving. Mobile network operators are eager to support new devices that need more speed and efficiency.

There are savings to be made on power consumption for running multiple networks by switching off 2G and 3G networks. Another benefit is that regulators can ‘re-farm’ the spectrum, by reallocating the frequencies occupied by 3G for use by 4G, 5G and, in the future, 6G, improving coverage and service speeds for consumers and businesses. Scott Brenton comments: “4G and 5G will deliver the speed, reliability and low latency businesses require to boost productivity and efficiency within their teams. For smaller businesses, better connectivity could be the difference between success and failure, as they strive to reach and retain global customers.”

Connectivity concerns in rural areas

In preparing for the move to modern networks, businesses need to be aware that 3G networks will be phased out and switched off before 2G. This is due to the fact that 2G remains useful as a low power fall back and is still necessary in some rural areas for particular applications. Brenton says: “2G still exists in many massive, connected spaces – and metering still relies on this network. Radio frequencies used by 2G have the widest coverage capabilities, which is important in remote areas, and so switching off 2G without an elongated switchover phase would be catastrophic, due to the telemetry systems that still sit on it.”

To address 4G and 5G network accessibility in rural areas, mobile network operators and the UK government are working together to transform mobile coverage across the UK through the Shared Rural Network (SRN). This initiative aims to address the digital divide by delivering improved 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025. However, this won’t address the transition to modern networks ahead of the 2023 3G sunset. Brenton advises: “If you have legacy equipment, particularly on a remote site, that only works up to 3G, and doesn’t have the ability to move over to 4G or beyond, you need to think quickly about what to do next.”

Network considerations to ensure business continuity

While implementing new technology can be a big undertaking, advance planning will help ensure a smooth rollout. What’s more, the 2G/3G sunset can in fact provide an opportunity for companies to re-evaluate their current technology infrastructure, allowing them to potentially realise cost savings, as well as advance safety and efficiency. Businesses should be conducting impact assessments to determine if they are facing coverage gaps and implementation delays when 2G and 3G networks are switched off. “We’re bringing the switch-off to our customers’ attention and encouraging them to develop transition plans,” says Brenton. “If the impact is extensive, then organisations need to replace crucial devices as a priority in the interests of business continuity.”

The 2G/3G sunset presents an excellent opportunity for organisations to look at the business case for using 4G and 5G networks in the future. It may be that other connectivity solutions would be more applicable for certain use cases. Brenton explains: “Cellular technology may no longer be the way forward for some companies, so it is important to look at the alternatives and select the connectivity option that best fits the use case. It isn’t always about adding bandwidth – it could be that adding capability through using a different technology is a better option for our customers.”

Bandwidth, power consumption and coverage range of the application are the main considerations when choosing an IoT network. Businesses have a range of alternatives they could choose from depending on what fits the business case, but careful assessment is needed. Brenton adds: “If your IoT devices consume a lot of data, then you’ll need an IoT wireless network that can receive and process the required amount of data for your needs. Power consumption is a critical factor if your devices are battery-powered, and coverage range is important if your devices are spread over a wide area.”

Alternatives to cellular networks

It could be that a private LTE network, mesh technologies such as Zigbee, an RF (radio frequency) technology like Bluetooth, or a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN), such as LoRa, among other options, could increase capability and suit an organisation’s particular business case. A private LTE network could be a good option for a utility company, as it provides a secure, reliable, broadband wireless connectivity that enables the utility to collect and use data from a wide variety of grid assets. In the case of massive IoT, however, applications are less latency-sensitive and have lower throughput requirements. They require a huge volume of low-cost, low-energy consumption devices on a network with excellent coverage, which LoRa LPWAN offers.

Solid State Supplies takes a consultative approach with customers and begins by finding out the main objective of the IoT application, the minimum performance requirements to meet objectives and the location of the IoT devices, as well as their distance from each other. Brenton adds: “The sheer scope of applications that 4G and 5G lends itself to makes it a very adaptable technology. With the 2G and 3G sunset, the evolution of 5G is happening now – and customers are asking now for today’s designs to be future proof. They may not be ready yet to switch assets to 5G, but they need new equipment to be 5G ready – and we can provide the guidance and advice companies need to ensure that they are not caught unawares.”

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