3G Switch-Off Brings Challenges and Opportunities

Amid deafening industry hype about the evolution to 5G networks and beyond, another important technology shift is well underway: throughout Europe, many operators have begun retiring their 3G networks.

The motivation to sunset 3G is clear. Usage has rapidly diminished as many customers upgrade phones with newer technologies. At Vodafone UK for example, 3G networks now carry less than 4% of all network data, down from 30% in 2016.

The latest 4G and 5G networks are far more capable of supporting the giant leap in data traffic that new services will undoubtedly demand. They’re also more energy efficient, helping operators reach tough environmental targets.

Already, a handful of operators in Europe have closed their 3G networks (see the table below). Dutch operator VodafoneZiggo, T-Mobile in Germany and Telia Norway were among the first.

Status of 3G network closure for selected European operators

OperatorCountry3G Network Status
VodafoneZiggoNetherlandsClosed in February 2020
Deutsche TelekomGermanyClosed in June 2021
TeliaNorwayClosed in December 2021
KPNNetherlandsClosed in March 2022
TelefonicaGermanySwitching off 300 final 3G sites in 2022
VodafoneUKWill begin decommissioning in 2023
BTUKShutting down from January 2024
TeliaFinlandPlanning to shut down in 2024
SwisscomSwitzerlandPlanning to shut down in 2025
OrangeFrancePlanning to shut down in 2028

The most recent 3G closure was by KPN in the Netherlands in March 2022. However, like many other operators, it’s still operating its 2G network, which it has promised will remain open until December 2025.

Not every operator is seeking to bring the curtain down on 3G just yet. Telekom Austria and Swisscom are understood to be aiming for 2025, and Orange will keep 3G running in France until 2028. Bucking an industry trend, Orange will decommission 2G in its home market first, in 2025. The decision was announced at this year’s MWC; executives explained that the broader reach of its 3G network was a leading reason (see Insight Report: MWC 2022: Network Operators).

Closing less-efficient legacy networks is the right way forward for an industry seeking to streamline operations amid huge upfront investment in the latest technology.

But it’s a transition that also raises important questions about supporting the connectivity needs of many people still using older mobile phones.

CCS Insight’s research has shown that older generations are the most likely to be affected by 3G network closures. This age group owns a higher proportion of phones that need to be replaced or upgraded to stay connected.

In our view, the needs of older users are often misunderstood. Despite a growing number of easy-to-use phones designed specifically for senior citizens over the past decade, many are typically focussed on basic functions such as voices calls and text messages. They offer a fraction of the invaluable functionalities available on modern smartphones.

This is a challenge for society as the digital divide threatens to leave some people behind. Accelerated by the pandemic, smartphones are playing a greater role in our everyday lives, whether that be to scan QR codes in restaurants to access the menu; to pay for parking; to receive two-factor authentication requests or provide proof of vaccination.

Often, basic, big-button devices are shunned by older users, who feel there’s a stigma attached to them.

Another challenge for older users is that they can be cajoled into using second-hand devices that are too difficult to use. Sometimes referred to as “hand-me-up”, a senior user may end up with a pre-owned iOS or Android smartphone that can be several years old.

Older smartphones typically suffer from a lack of regular software updates — or no updates at all. This can result in security problems or unexpected difficulties with critical apps, such as those provided by banks.

We see 3G network shutdowns as a catalyst for a wave of upgrade activity among senior users. This brings an opportunity for companies to develop a strategy specifically catering to older users obliged to upgrade their devices once 3G disappears over the horizon.

Several manufacturers already offer products with these capabilities; notable examples are long-established phone-maker Emporia, as well as its rival Doro.

Products such as the Emporia SMART.5 provide a full suite of applications and a recent, regularly updated version of the Android operating system. The user experience is also optimized to make the interface easy to navigate, offering access to information in as few swipes as possible.

For operators, navigating the closure of 3G networks needs to be done carefully and sensitively. We advocate an upfront approach, using targeted communication. BT, for example, is writing to its small number of 3G femtocell customers informing them that the platform is about to close. It’s the first of several steps that will eventually lead to the full closure of its 3G network from January 2024. The memo highlighted that customers would not be left without a connection as they can easily switch to other options such as Wi-Fi calling and 4G, which is a more extensive and reliable network than 3G.

Another approach — one being taken by Vodafone UK — is to team with trusted third parties or charities to reach the most vulnerable customers. The operator is also targeting friends and family, encouraging them to help loved ones navigate the change.

As well as the technical, commercial and environmental benefits of moving away from legacy networks, 3G sunsetting is also an opportunity for the mobile industry to help older mobile phone users transition to smartphones. This can boost loyalty and usage for a segment that hasn’t always been well served by technology. An important upgrade journey is already ongoing.

This blog is an abridged version of a recent report from CCS Insight entitled Sunsetting 3G: Challenges and Opportunities. To download it, please fill out the form below.