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South Africa pushes 2G, 3G sunset to 2027

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South Africa's government has proposed a total shutdown of 2G and 3G networks in the country by the end of December 2027, moving previous deadlines which wanted 2G shut off at the end of this month.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) has published a government gazette outlining new proposed dates for the shutdown as part of 'the Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy for Economic Development'.

The document signed by DCDT Minister Mondli Gungubele provided preliminary dates for the sunset of 2G and 3G networks in SA, but he said the sunsetting would be done in a phased approach over two to three years after the publication of the policy.

"In line with other policies of the government, the spectrum policy recognizes that older-generation networks or technologies will not aid the government in meeting the requirements of broadband for its citizens," the document said.

"To promote spectrum efficiency and enable service benefit to its citizens, the government with this policy supports efficient utilization of the 'high demand spectrum' through continuous review and shutdown of older inefficient networks to free up 'high demand spectrum' for use by newer generation network technologies which are more spectrum efficient," it added.

The new document stipulates:

  • The prohibition of type approval of 2G and 3G only devices - by September 30, 2024.

  • Prohibition of activation of 2G and 3G only devices on networks - by December 31, 2024.

  • Commencement for the shutdown of 2G and 3G services - by June 1, 2025.

  • Total shutdown of 2G and 3G networks - by December 31, 2027.

    These new deadlines are different from the initial dates set out in September 2022 by former Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

    The 2022 draft policy had stipulated a shutdown of the 2G network by June 30, 2024, and the shutdown of 3G by March 30, 2025.

    At the time, local mobile operators spoke out about the shutdown with many believing the timelines were not achievable, calling for industry-wide consultation on the process.

    Reason's behind the shutdown

    The main reason for switching off 2G and 3G would be to free up spectrum that could instead be used for more advanced technologies like 4G and 5G.

    However, a vast proportion of handsets in the South African market are still 3G handsets which are often more affordable than 4G or 5G-enabled devices.

    2G is also still used for machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT services - particularly vehicle tracking systems, point-of-sale devices as well as some legacy emergency services systems, private alarm systems, and smart meters, which need to be transitioned to newer tech.

    South Africa's mobile operators will be prohibited from activating any new 2G and 3G devices at the end of December 2024 and will have to shut down their 2G and 3G networks by December 2027.   (Source: Image by wirestock on Freepik).
    South Africa's mobile operators will be prohibited from activating any new 2G and 3G devices at the end of December 2024 and will have to shut down their 2G and 3G networks by December 2027.
    (Source: Image by wirestock on Freepik).

    "The policy also recognizes that the ICT industry has been planning and preparing for the shutdown of the older generation networks such as 2G and 3G and that other sectors of the economy still offer services and applications which rely on and utilize these networks," the new policy document reads.

    "However, the policy recognizes the 'opportunity cost' of not shutting down these older-generation networks. Thus, the policy proposes that an economic and regulatory impact assessment study be conducted within one (1) year from the publication of this policy, to ascertain and mitigate any potential risk to the economy and end users of such services and applications," it continued.

    Minister Gungubele will issue a policy direction for the shutdown of "old next-generation networks" after consultation with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and industry stakeholders.

    SA market statistics

    Data from market research company Omdia, a sister company of Connecting Africa, shows that at the end of 2023 about 48% of South Africa's mobile subscriptions were 3G - around 60 million subscriptions - but only 2.5% were 2G - around 3.2 million subscriptions.

    These numbers are set to decline as more people transition to 4G and 5G devices and Omdia forecasts that 3G will drop to about 35% of the overall total at the end of 2024, and 19.4% by the end of 2025.

    2G was the dominant technology in South Africa back in 2010 with 84% of all mobile subscribers using it, but this plummeted to about 8% ten years later - as 3G and 4G's popularity grew.

    2G users dropped further to 3.5% in 2022, Omdia market intelligence shows. 2G's percentage of the country's total mobile subscriptions is expected to fall to 0.5% by the end of 2025, and to zero by 2026.

    4G on the other hand is growing, it made up 47.8% of all mobile users at the end of 2023 and this is forecast to grow to 73.2% by the end of 2026, after which it will decline as 5G grows.

    Omdia estimates that in March 2024 almost 64% of MTN's customers were still using 3G; 50% for Vodacom; 41% for Cell C; while 10.5% of Telkom SA subscribers were using 3G.

    On the flip side, 2G has become a very small percentage of traffic for most of the operators. Omdia estimates that in March 2024, MTN's 2G users made up just 0.4% of its total base; Cell C's 2G customers were just 0.65% of the base; and Telkom's were around 1.5%. Vodacom had the biggest 2G user base at 4% of its total.

    Meanwhile South Africa's smallest operator, Rain, does not have any 2G or 3G customers as it launched with 4G in June 2018 and was the first SA network to launch 5G in 2019. Rain's customers were 96.4% on 4G at the end of March 2024, with the remainder on 5G.

    Related posts:

    *Top image is of South Africa's DCDT Minister Mondli Gungubele speaking at GovTech in September 2023. (Source: KwaZulu-Natal provincial government).

    — Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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