Goodbye to 3G and copper. Hello to…

The UK network operators are planning to close 3G networks and phase out copper lines. It’s far from the only country planning to do so. It seems that 3G and copper are history – or soon will be. Why? 

Simply put, 3G is going because the spectrum is better used for 4G and 5G networks, which not only give customers, faster, and more reliable mobile services but also use spectrum more efficiently. In any case, there are very few 3G-dependent devices and services – or users – left in circulation in the UK. 

Most UK mobile operators will have turned off 3G by 2025. You will still be able to use 2G voice and text; 2G won’t stop until the 2030s in the UK. It’s useful as a fallback for basic voice services and particular applications, such as smart meters. Although as recently reported by House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts in its update on the rollout of smart meters ‘(an estimated seven million) will lose functionality when the 2G and  3G mobile communications networks are closed if they do not receive costly hardware upgrades’.

These 3G/2G network sunsets aren’t the only changes ahead. BT Openreach has confirmed it has stopped selling new voice copper telephone lines on its national network after more than a century. The announcement is in line with Openreach’s plan to retire the copper-based public switched telephone network (PSTN) by the end of 2025. 

It’s not been a bad performance. Copper has adapted rather well to broadband services via ADSL and FTTC, among other offerings, but, given the delivery speeds now required and the sheer volume of demand, it does look as though fibre – finally – is the future. 

For most consumers, the loss of 3G won’t matter. Wi-Fi and 4G or 5G mobile are often preferred to 3G. Some consumers with older mobile phones or those for whom the alternative to landlines is less reliable (or non-existent) will be impacted, however. The shutdown may require upgrades to older consumer devices that use 3G (rather than VoLTE) for voice.  

In addition, many companies in the UK rely on 3G technology throughout their operations for remote monitoring and data transmission. Some experts suggest that several medical devices, tablets, smartwatches, vehicle SOS services known as eCall, personal emergency alert devices, and security systems may be affected by the 3G shutdown. 

It may also affect some vehicle models released anytime between 2010 and 2021. Some cars will lose the ability to update location and traffic data while navigating. Others could become unable to connect with smartphones, voice assistants, or emergency call services. 

That said, the UK and Europe, where many operators have completed or planned the switch-off of their legacy 2G or 3G networks, appear to be in a better position when it comes to the 3G switch-off than many other regions – notably in the developing world. 

In some Asia-Pacific countries, 2G and 3G connectivity via cheap or second-hand phones is, it seems, a habit for remote areas that may be hard to break. In South Africa, where the 3G switch-off is supposed to happen in 2025, the same issue arises: there are many 3G handsets and 4G versions aren’t cheap enough. In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa 3G remains a dominant connectivity technology. 

Even in the advanced US market, Verizon’s late 2022 3G shutdown reportedly cost it over 900,000 post-paid subscriptions and 237,000 consumer pre-paid subscriptions. 

Meanwhile, few operators in Latin America have switched off, or have set a definitive date to switch off their 2G or 3G mobile networks. Thus, the UK – less geographically spread out, well prepared and many of whose consumers can afford to upgrade – seems to have a relatively smooth path to 3G shutdown. 

However, the end of copper could be a bigger issue, affecting millions of UK premises and tens of thousands of businesses across the UK now utilising POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) or data services via  ADSL, FTTC, EoFTTC, or an EFM connection. Some of these companies may also be unaware of the 3G shutdown and the impact it could have on their business.  

And, arguably, the issue around public sector provision could be even more problematic. Public services focused on health, transport, and areas like waste and parking will be using a combination of new and legacy fibre (and mobile) equipment that may need to be rationalised. 

The old PSTN and PBX will be out, replaced byall-IP services. For business options like SIP trunking, hosted VoIP, ethernet and cloud services will be on offer. And any employee still using an iPhone 3GS or Nokia N95 will have to think again. 

For consumers the choice is a little more stark – when your POTS stops working just plug your telephone into the socket on your router – assuming your router does have such a socket on it. There could also be challenges about where your router is located and where your telephone is located. It’s also likely that this copper network phase out may further accelerate the transition from fixed to mobile in the home 

Of course, these changes will all be phased and communication service providers and Ofcom will keep people informed. However, if you’re a UK business or public sector concerned about managing this change you may need to look not only at your options but also your opportunities. 

Smaller businesses, for example, could look at ways to use Wi-Fi, and in building mobile coverage to encourage greater mobility and flexibility among their workforces. Bigger businesses could look more closely at 4G and 5G private networks – a way to keep communications secure but remain in the vanguard of change. 

Luckily the UK government has given you time to manage this transition. And Real Wireless can help you to make the most of that time. Despite our name, we have expertise – both technical and economic – that spans both fixed and wireless communications. We can advise your business on the mix that could suit you and your needs. Including your longer-term needs.   

There is a lot to consider when assessing the impact and future options related to the sunset of 3G, 2G and copper networks – indeed, 4G and 5G may not always be the most appropriate options. Readiness is essential – and forward planning on a practical real world basis has always been one of our major USPs.