What You Need to Know About 2G/3G Network Shutdowns in Europe

Tags: IoT
A picture of Jaan Kristjan Lepp
Written by
Jaan Kristjan Lepp

As technology advances, older technologies become obsolete and are being phased out. The same thing is happening in the telecommunications sector, where telecom companies worldwide are moving from 2G and 3G to newer, more advanced technologies like 4G and 5G.

Cullen International's research shows that 22 of 31 countries in Europe have completed or are planning to shut down their 2G and/or 3G networks.

Swisscom was among the first to switch off 2G in early 2021. Eight other countries could follow suit and switch off 2G.

However, 3G networks are usually switched off before 2G networks, especially in Europe. In contrast, the U.S. is considering shutting down the 2G networks first, while Australian telecommunications companies want to shut down both technologies at the same time.

In this joint article with Krakul, we discuss why these networks are being shut down and how you can ensure your IoT business is prepared for the transition in Europe.

Why are these networks being switched off?

For years, cost-effective 2/3G networks with high-quality coverage have provided reliable cellular connectivity to millions of IoT devices around the world.

If these networks are so well suited for IoT applications, what is the reason for discontinuing 2/3G networks?

The GSMA explains that sunsetting networks are primarily a business decision.

It means reducing the number of active RATs (Radio Access Technologies) and reserving radio frequencies for future 4G and 5G networks to minimize network maintenance costs.

As for IoT/M2M applications, the phase-out will also enable the growth of LPWAN technologies designed for IoT/M2M applications, such as NB-IoT and LTE-M.

LPWAN has much lower power requirements on the device side than traditional network technologies, making it far more suitable for applications that need to transfer data intermittently over a long period. Additionally, the newer technologies have enhanced capacity, allowing more significant numbers of devices to be connected to the network at any given time. This increases the potential for applications and services that can be used.

How might I be affected?

While network operators prepare for the 2G/3G shutdown, service restrictions and interruptions may occur before the official sunset date.

And while carriers are preparing for the complete network shutdown, they are no longer activating new devices running 2G/3G.

Existing devices may still be able to connect to the network, but their support will be phased out, and when the old network spectrum is repurposed for the new networks, devices running 2G/3G may not work at all or as effectively in those particular areas.

IoT companies should be aware of the phase-out dates and make sure they are prepared.

Considering the phase-out of 2/3G networks, IoT companies that work with these devices need to know how to prepare for it.

Optimizing the IoT devices that are currently running on 2/3G networks

Depending on your target market and coverage in the area, now might be the best time to upgrade your 2/3G-dependent devices to 4G (LTE CAT 1) or LPWAN technologies (NB -IoT or LTE-M). And in a situation where the 2/3G switch-off is imminent (e.g., a few years away) in the country where it's currently being rolled out, quick decisions need to be made.

Here are a few suggestions to help you

  • Involve your Electronics Manufacturing Service (EMS) and its procurement department in the decision-making process immediately. Don't hesitate to place orders 6-12 months before manufacturing begins. If something changes, these orders can be canceled or adjusted accordingly.

  • Leverage the knowledge of on-site application engineers to find suitable next-generation replacements. Often, suppliers can provide you with evaluation kits so you can quickly begin development and testing, or they can put you in touch with component manufacturers directly to help you.

  • If your device's cellular module needs to be upgraded, it's advisable to choose the same manufacturer and aim for a modem with the same footprint and pins. Although the antenna may need to be replaced and recertified, redesigning the PCB will take little time. Keeping the same manufacturer also makes it easier to change over to the general firmware of the device. Modules from the same manufacturer will likely follow the same AT commands, and only the Radio Access Technology (RAT) selection would need to be reconfigured.

  • If this type of modem cannot be found, the situation is much more costly. This warrants major changes to the firmware and PCB design. Even worse, if the existing product uses an open-core modem with custom firmware for which there is no drop-in replacement, the existing code must also be ported to the new processor.

  • Various fallback options help immensely. For example, many Cat-1 modems for constant-power devices offer both 2G and 3G as fallback options, so the functionality of the device isn't affected if the target market turns off either option. While it's not ideal that the elimination of 2G and 3G eliminates the fallback options, the device will still function with 4G. Alternatively, smaller LTE-M modules for battery-powered devices typically offer 2G as a fallback option.

Planning new product launches in the light of sunsets

When launching new products, you shouldn’t find yourself in a worst-case scenario where a product with a long lifespan is produced this year only to become obsolete in less than two years due to network sunsets.

To avoid this, it's important to remember that while 2/3G network shutdowns are managed by multinational offices, the final decisions are made locally in each region. To ensure that you have the correct information, we recommend that you request it directly from the local telecommunications companies in your target market.

Local operators may have the option of shutting down only the 3G networks, or the deadline for phasing out both networks may be years in the future, in 2030. Even though deadlines might seem far in the future, keep in mind, however, that these decisions are not set in stone and may change over time.

If your product is to work in more than one country, it makes sense to meet only the strictest deadline.

To avoid bad surprises, keep the timing of the network phase-out in mind when planning your product launch.

  • Find out about the phase-out date in each region where you plan to operate

  • Look for fallback options to ensure device functionality.

The fact is that 2/3G networks will be shut down in the near future, and it's important that you are prepared. To help you out, we have compiled a list of sunset dates, sorted by region.

If you want to better understand the transition from 2/3G for your specific use case, Krakul can help you with hardware/firmware planning, while 1oT can help you create the best connectivity plan.