3 has started to switch off roaming onto Orange's 2G network in locations where it reckons its own coverage makes the 2G partner redundant.
3 doesn't run a 2G network in the UK, so customers wandering outside the 3G coverage have always roamed into someone else's 2G infrastructure. Initially that was provided by O2, more recently by Orange - but since October some areas are being asked to rely entirely on 3G technology, which isn't always up to the job.
3 is adamant that the number of customers left without connectivity is tiny, though that minority is a vocal one. 3 tells us it's only switched off the roaming agreement in places where its own (3G) coverage is comprehensive. The operator reckons that in many instances handsets are discovering Orange's 2G network first, so roaming onto it (at additional cost to 3) despite the fact that 3's 3G infrastructure is available.
Prior to the switch-off, for example, customers in central London (Holborn to be exact) were using 2G networks for three per cent of their calls. Since switching off, more than 90 per cent of that three per cent are being carried over the 3G network. The remaining few are either using 2G-only handsets, or are in basements/concrete-lined rooms into which the 2.1GHz 3G signal can't penetrate.
3 never supplied any 2G handsets, so such things must have come from another network. 3 tells us it's "reaching out" to owners of 2G-only handsets who might find it an opportune time to upgrade.
We've asked 3 for details of which areas have been designated 3G-only, but are still waiting to hear - the operator has told us it doesn't have a timetable for switching off roaming entirely, but will switch off 2G coverage when the proportion of calls being carried over 2G falls below a specific level.
Such calls obviously cost 3 as it has to pay Orange for the carriage. 3 is actively extending its 3G network, which is in the process of being merged with Everything Everywhere's 3G network, and would obviously be happier if it could switch off the 2G technology entirely. It would certainly be the first network to do so.
Vodafone and O2 will be watching that process closely - they too are keen to dump the legacy tech, so they can clear the spectrum for 3G (UMTS900). So while 3 may be the first to start turning off 2G it won't be the last, and if you are one of that "tiny minority" then you might want to give 3 a bell and see what it'll offer you to stay. ®