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Should SA switch off 2G & 3G?

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Plans for South Africa to shut down its 2G and 3G networks over the next three years have met with mixed reactions from local analysts. Most feel that shutting down 2G is a smart move, but some see a shutdown of 3G as unrealistic in the medium term.

This after the SA government published a draft policy proposing the shutdown of 2G networks by June 2024 and a sunset of 3G by March 2025.

The plans are part of a draft 'Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy' from South Africa's Department of Communications & Digital Technologies (DCDT) which was approved by the country's Cabinet last week.

"Acknowledging that spectrum is a finite resource, the adoption of more advanced technologies for economic growth must be matched by a deliberate program to retire old technologies to ensure more spectrum is made available for the country to achieve our objective of offering all South Africans high-speed broadband," DCDT minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said at a press briefing late on Thursday.

"Thus this policy proposal sunset of 2G and 3G networks with the aim of availing more spectrum to support deployments of 5G and beyond technologies," she added.

The policy document said that the shutting down of older generation networks needs to be done "in a planned, coordinated and less disruptive manner," and outlined the below timelines.

Sunset of 2G Network (preliminary dates)

  • The prohibition of the licensing of 2G devices – 30 June 2023

  • Prohibition of new connections or activation of 2G devices on networks – 31 December 2023

  • Shutdown of 2G services – 31 March 2024

  • Shutdown of 2G network – 30 June 2024

    Sunset of 3G Network (preliminary dates)

  • The prohibition of the licensing of 3G devices – 31 March 2024

  • Prohibition of connections or activation of 3G on networks – 30 September 2024

  • Shutdown of 3G services – 31 December 2024

  • Shutdown of 3G network – 30 March 2025

    The public has 30 days to submit comments on the draft policy.

    Times up for 2G

    Analysts agree that the main reason for switching off 2G would be to free up spectrum being used by 2G and refarming it for more advanced technologies like 4G.

    "The emphasis of the mobile operators and their main business segment has transitioned from voice to data. 2G was essentially a voice-only technology, you could do very basic data on it like Internet of Things (IoT), but it was never suitable for using for data services," Arthur Goldstuck, analyst and CEO of World Wide Worx, told Connecting Africa.

    "As 3G, 4G and 5G have successfully come into play, 2G has become less and less relevant on the one hand, but also more and more wasteful of scarce resources, namely spectrum. The spectrum that is used for 2G will be far more valuably deployed for broadband deployment," he said.

    Dobek Pater, director for business development at Africa Analysis, agreed and said that sub-1GHz spectrum can be used to deploy more efficient mobile technologies, like 4G, particularly in less densified environments and/or for better in-door penetration.

    "Given the scarcity of spectrum available to the operators, the additional spectrum could be well used. The newer mobile technologies are also more spectrum-efficient," Pater added.

    "By decommissioning 2G (and in time also 3G) RAN [radio access network] equipment, the operators will also free up space on towers and passive infrastructure structures for the deployment of new equipment – 5G and even 4G in some cases. This may save costs on having to strengthen some of the towers to handle the additional new technology equipment load," he said.

    Omdia research shows that 2G users made up just 4% of total mobile subscriptions in South Africa at the end of 2021, according to Omdia senior research analyst for Africa markets, Thecla Mbongue.

    "This is already a very small percentage, which also includes IoT devices. In the same manner that an awareness campaign was run about switching off the analogue TV platform, we expect the Government to increase awareness around switching off 2G networks so that by 2023, the few remaining 2G users will migrate to at least 3G," she said.

    Pater pointed out that more developed parts of the world are also moving towards discontinuing 2G services which means there will be increasingly less 2G equipment available – for the networks and end-user devices – and less support from the equipment vendors.

    "Maintaining 2G networks may become more tedious and possibly more costly, while the supply of phones will diminish," Pater said.

    SA's mobile operators want to use the latest technologies in order to drive the uptake of data-based services – like mobile broadband and over-the-top (OTT) services like video streaming, Mbongue added.

    "As the socio-economic environment continues to move towards greater data consumption, the older technologies will become meaningless and useless over time. It will become inefficient – even economically unviable – for the MNOs to continue supporting a diminishing group of 2G and 3G customers," Pater added.

    2G turnoff downside

    The main drawback of turning off 2G is related to machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT services that use 2G – particularly vehicle tracking systems, point-of-sale devices as well as some legacy emergency services systems, private alarm systems, and smart meters.

    "The merchants will have to upgrade to the latest generations, mainly 4G. Now that the government has made announcements and given a timeline, there should be enough time for them to do so," Mbongue said.

    This transition will likely cost some sectors a lot of money to replace or upgrade terminals and sensors to run on 3G or 4G.

    There is also still a small portion of the population that is reliant on 2G devices for mobile communications. This raises affordability issues as they are forced to migrate from 2G feature phones to more expensive upgraded devices, but analyst say the trend of phones becoming cheaper is due to continue.

    "The cost of 3G and 4G devices drops constantly and nowadays we can find a wide range of entry-level 3G and 4G phones," Mbongue said.

    "We can find a lot of entry-level 4G devices at the same price as 3G devices. Those entry level 4G devices might, however, not support all features and apps available with better equipped 4G devices," she added.

    "Prohibition of activating new 2G connections is proposed for the end of 2023; some 16 months away. Theoretically, by then 3G phones (also to be discontinued later) and 4G phones may be within the affordability range, or more will be handed down by more affluent family members who can afford new devices."

    "However, this timeline may be too short. We probably need at least another one to two years beyond 2023," Pater said.

    The 3G question

    "I don't think it's viable to turn off 3G for the foreseeable future. 2G yes but 3G no," was Goldstuck's view.

    "3G still provides a decent experience for basic uses. A vast proportion of handsets in the market are 3G handsets, so I can't see that happening. That's equivalent to the digital migration of TV, which has taken 14 years and I suspect the same is going to happen in this regard," he added.

    SA's digital migration has still not been completed, and hit another delay in June 2022.

    Omdia data shows that at the end of 2021 about 60% of South Africa's mobile subscriptions were still on 3G, but predicts this will drop to about 22% by the end of 2025.

    Goldstuck believes there will be pushback on the sunset timelines for 3G from the industry at large.

    "I suspect public comment would alert them to the fact that it would be inappropriate to switch off 3G in the foreseeable future," he said.

    When asked why the SA government would want to switch off 3G his response was "because the government doesn't understand technology."

    "The government has never shown itself to be at the cutting edge of appreciating where technology is and where it's going. It tends to be playing catch up from a decade ago. Otherwise, it would never have allowed the spectrum debacle to happen – where it never issued spectrum for around 16 years. That was criminal and is indicative of not appreciating the importance of keeping up with technology trends," he added.

    More spectrum was finally released to SA mobile operators in March 2022.

    Sunset success

    Pater said that the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks in more developed countries has already been taking place and there have been no material negative impacts.

    "African countries need to follow suit, it is inevitable," he said.

    Want to know more about 4G and 5G in Africa? Check out our dedicated 4G/5G content channel here on Connecting Africa.

    "However, it is also about trying to optimize the timeline of discontinuing the older technologies between the consumers and businesses using such technologies and the operators having to continue supporting these technologies and being able to use the relevant spectrum in an economically more efficient manner," Pater added.

    "Bear in mind that in the United States, all the operators have basically switched off 2G or are in the process of doing so. The UK has announced that it will switch off 2G by 2033, which sounds like an absurdly long time, so it seems they don't want to rock the boat. But they also probably have more effective deployment of spectrum in that environment so there is not a desperate need for 2G spectrum," Goldstuck added.

    Related posts:

    *Top image source: Image by wirestock on Freepik.

    — Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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