Return to site

2G and 3G Sunsetting

A Final Call to Action!


· Articles

End user organizations facing 2G and 3G sunsetting need to do their due diligence or
end up scrambling to handle communication outages.

The sunsetting of 2G (GSM/GPRS) and 3G (UMTS) is no news, and happened already in some parts of the world.  


It’s easy to overlook technology that is embedded, for example in an elevator, when preparing for 2G and or 3G sunsetting in a specific country. To make things even more complicated, even though a given device may claim 4G (LTE) compatibility, it may not work as expected for voice and SMS. Organizations need to perform basically a mini version of a Y2K-like project to identify and test or upgrade devices well ahead of the announced sunset dates communicated by local operators.  

State of Sunsetting 

2G is already sunset in Australia, China, New Zealand, South Africa and USA (all major operators but one) to mention some of the most important countries out of currently 15 where all operators have completed 2G switch-off. 3G switch-off is happening at a much faster rate and has already happened in China, Germany, India, Netherlands and Norway to mention a few. By year-end 2023, 3G switch-off will be complete in almost all western countries and mature countries in APAC. The thinking when switching off 3G before 2G is that there are hardly any users left on 3G and essential services like E-call (emergency calling from vehicles) and AMR (Automated Meter Reading) will work fine over 2G and in most instances these devices have probably been using 2G anyway. Being able to sunset a 3G network is attractive to both operators and regulators as it frees up spectrum for 5G, reduces power consumption as well as reduces
operation and maintenance cost. 2025 is expected to be the year when 2G will be sunset in most European countries. See the chart below for an illustration of sunset dates by technology and country/region. 

broken image


What are the challenges to look out for? 

One of the things that make a 4G (or 5G) network very differentfrom 2G and 3G network is that there is no notion of circuit switched voice (and for that matter circuit switched data as well). All traffic on a 4G network is just IP-packets. Voice on a 4G network (as well as SMS) uses VoLTE (Voice over LTE), which was part of the first LTE specification by 3GPP (Release 8). The known issues that organizations may run into include: 

  • Some devices that claim to be LTE compliant maynot properly support VoLTE which means voice and SMS stops working. Sometimes this is linked to specific chipsets or firmware versions. This is more likely to happen on a device that’s been in use for 5+ years or a device based on an old platform. Ruggedized devices that are manufactured in small volumes and sometimes with different chip sets than COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) devices are more at risk. The challenge is that this is not noticed in everyday operation when the device just falls back to 2G for voice and SMS potentially resulting in employees being unable to make voice calls or SMS to their organization or emergency services when 2G is switched off. E-call from vehicles as well as elevators to name a few use-cases can also be impacted. This can also be experienced when a user with one of these devices crosses the border into a country where 2G/3G has already been switched off. To make things even more complicated the implementation of VoLTE may differ slightly between operators. Some early day IoT implementations may be designed to use circuit switched data or circuit switched voice communication. Even if the IoT endpoint itself may support LTE, the software may insist on using a 2G/3G feature that is no longer available.  
  • VoLTE roaming is not yet as ubiquitous as traditional 2G or 3G roaming which may pose a problem in select countries for international travelers. 
  • Non-obvious devices like GPS trackers in trailers may stop working since the low-cost ones typically respond to a traditional SMS message.  

A complicating factor – concurrent copper/POTS networkshutdown 

In a number of European countries, the planned shutdown ofthe traditional copper network for voice, aka Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) is scheduled to happen on a similar timeline as the sunset of 2G. This can create supply chain issues if multiple large utilities simultaneously start to order big quantities of LTE or LTE/5G comms modules. It can also become very stressful if the organization needs to handle both 2G and copper shutdown simultaneously from a resource perspective. 

Don’t stay on too long 

Even if your operator has communicated a timeline forsunsetting services, staying on too close to the sunset date spells risk. Mobile Operators are harvesting 2G (and 3G) spectrum for 4G and 5G which means less and less spectrum is available to 2G and may cause congestion. This can be further complicated by mobile operators not being keen on replacing aging equipment when it fails close to the sunset date. In short, 2G services are likely to suffer service degradation closer to the sunset date. Waiting too close to the sunset date may also expose the organization to supply chain shortages and internal resource shortages. 

The different forms/stages of sunsetting  

Many operators will do a soft network shutdown. There might first be a period when no more new users of the service are allowed onto the network. When the 2G or 3G service is then shut down, the networks are
logically shut down but services can be quickly restored if needed. The final step is when the equipment is decommissioned and then there is no way back. The widely publicized case of the first country to shutdown 2G in 2015, Macau, was actually a very soft sunset. The network was sunset for domestic users while roaming visitors could continue to use the network until mid 2019. 


Organizations that have one or more of the following will need to run a “mini-Y2K” project to make sure that all device types are inventoried:

  • Large amounts of Frontline Workers that use devices with mobile voice and data connections 
  • Large amount of IoT endpoints – including easy to miss trackers and other small devices that may be on pre-paid plans 
  • Large amount of international travelers 

Each device type (make/model/version/firmware version/OS version) needs to be tested to ensure proper operation or upgraded/replaced well ahead of any sunset date. This work should start two-to-three years before the sunset date communicated by the local operator to ensure enough time to properly identify and assess all device types. Ideally, the project should be completed 12 months ahead of any sunset date to safeguard from service degradation and delays. 


This article is based on publicly available information frommobile operators, regulators and the GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association)
as well as my own analysis. 

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- 

LinkedIn post 

This is my second LinkedIn article as an independent techadvisor. Even though 2G and 3G sunsetting is “old news” in the industry, it’s about to hit a large number of countries, predominantly in Europe in the next two years. I thoroughly enjoy being able to write and share information about what I believe matters in a timely manner. I hope you enjoy it. 

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- 


Leif-Olof Wallin is an independent Tech Advisor who specializes in Enterprise Mobility, Frontline Workers, Private Mobile Networks and IoT. Formerly, he was one of the Gartner analysts that published much of
the Gartner research around IoT and what happens in the intersection of IoT, advanced analytics and Frontline Workers. 

© 2022 Leif-Olof Wallin 

Cover image credit: Cell Phone Tower (C) Mike Mozart, May 12, 2014, CC BY 2.0. No changes were made.