In the dash to move everything to next-generation services, mobile operators mustn't be too hasty to switch off 2G, a report by industry bodies has warned.
As Blighty starts to deploy 5G networks, operators are beginning to make noises about switching off older networks to free up much coveted spectrum.
However, 2G is still relied on by the elderly, users in rural locations and numerous machine-to-machine (M2M) applications such as smart meters, the UK Spectrum Policy Forum by Real Wireless noted in its report.
Additionally, the European Commission-mandated in-vehicle eCall system, which automatically contacts emergency services in the event of an accident using both voice and data capabilities, is currently based on 2G/3G technologies.
"Any plans to switch off (sunset) these networks need to be carefully thought through, planned and communicated to the end users and supporting ecosystems," the group said. "Transitioning the declining number of voice users – who need to buy a new 4G-capable phone – should be relatively straightforward, at least for UK residents, if supported by appropriate information and marketing campaigns."
According to Ofcom, 4G networks carried 85 per cent of the UK's data traffic as of the end of 2018, up from 74 per cent a year earlier.
The report noted that turning off 3G from all UK operators is likely to occur ahead of the 2G sunset. Vodafone has already said it is aiming to switch off its 3G networks in Europe by 2020, but will maintain 2G as a fall-back service.
The report also acknowledged that the transition of voice services away from 2G/3G to 4G Voice over LTE (VoLTE) may delay the 3G switch-off date, depending on the rate of user transition to VoLTE-capable phones. "Until VoLTE is universal, there will be a need for 4G circuit-switched fallback (CSFB) to 2G or 3G networks. At present there is still a significant volume of non-VoLTE-enabled 4G devices relying on 2G/3G for voice."
Tony Lavender, chair of the Spectrum Policy Forum Steering Board, said: "We sometimes focus on technology without fully understanding the impact on services people rely on. Among other things, 2G enables smart metering and the mobile phones used by many vulnerable people in society. We need to think through the alternatives for these services before switching them off."
John Okas of Real Wireless commented: "With so many applications and at-risk users still reliant on the ageing 2G networks, including critical national infrastructure, it's clear that the switch-off and migration is something that will need careful and considered management along with long term planning." ®