The 3G sunset is coming.
Businesses and corporations around the world use 3G for a number of broad and industry-specific applications, from transmitting CCTV camera data to connecting company cellphones, communicating with remote equipment, and driving the Industrial Internet of Things.
But over the next two years, US providers are planning to sunset 3G networks in order to free up bandwidth for faster, more spectrum-efficient 4G and 5G signals. In fact, the process has already begun.
Most US operators launched commercial 5G broadband service last year. It is estimated that most all cellular traffic in the US is carried over an LTE connection – the steppingstone between 3G and 5G.
For them, it’s a question of balancing the needs of that small but significant last vestige of 3G users (more than 50 million 3G current machine connections estimated in the US) against the opportunity to be a pacesetter with new technologies.
In other words, 3G is becoming a niche connection, serving a small part of the market in regions or on devices that don’t support the newer standards.
In addition to freeing up bandwidth, the 3G sunset enables telcos to market new packages and services.
All of these changes pose an obvious risk to businesses who have invested in a communications infrastructure that depend on a 3G connection.
So what should you do if your business is likely to be affected by the 3G shutdown?
1. Check your inventory
Not every decision-maker will be fully aware of which connections their infrastructure uses – or which it is capable of using. Some may be able to make the switch to LTE or directly to 5G with a change of wireless package rather than a full hardware refit.
It’s also worth noting that 2G and 3G are still prevalent in some regions, so a huge inventory of well-maintained hardware needn’t be a write-off if you can find a buyer.
2. Know when 3G networks will shut down
Not every mobile operator has announced a shut-down date for their 3G coverage yet, and there are those who provided date estimates for now. But it’s important to begin preparations as soon as possible.
Verizon stopped activating 3G on new devices way back in July 2018 – and will cease repairing cell radio chips this summer.
AT&T already switched off their 2G connection, and ceased certifying new 3G devices last year; but they’re unlikely to put 3G to bed before the end of 2021.
T-Mobile hinted their 3G sunset would hit in 2019, but as there have been no official announcements yet they seem likely not to shut it down until some point in 2020.
Leading Australian service Telstra has more vaguely stated that “between 2020 and 2030 the 3G network will be shut down.”
Keeping track of dates as they’re announced enables you to determine the urgency of the operation and to make the most economically-desirable choices: waiting until the last minute to solve a challenge like this always costs more.
3. Plan your 3G migration
With knowledge of your inventory, your timescale, and your general business plan, you’re in a strong position to strategize your business’s migration from 3G.
Consult your wireless carrier representative to get as clear as possible an answer of what you can expect from your existing set-up.
Officials at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency were caught off guard when AT&T switched off the 2G network while the agency was still busy upgrading its real-time customer information system. They paid the price with two weeks of disruption.
And examine your contract carefully: it could be that, in common with a handful of Verizon’s enterprise customers, your 3G network has a little bit more life in it than the publicly-hinted deadlines.
It will be essential to roll out your new deployment in good time ahead of the 3G shutdown so as to iron out any problems that arise while your business still has 3G as a fallback.
If your business crosses operator or international borders, it’s also worth factoring in differences in the timing of the shutdown between regions and providers.
4. Future-proof your investment
Nothing lasts forever, as the 3G sunset will show those who’ve proudly held onto the same ‘burner’ handset for over a decade.
The approaching shutdown will eventually be followed by a 4G sunset, even if it’s a few years away yet. So have a good talk with your provider (and indeed, shop around) because the economy of this upgrade involves more than just two generations of tech.
You’ll want to consider whether it’s best to make your post-3G hardware or to buy it. And you’ll want to get some guarantees about potential obsolescence from your wireless and hardware providers before signing on the dotted line.
If your devices are more about IoT than broadband communication, a narrowband NB-IoT or LTE-M connection may be a more affordable and durable option as these standards are designed to evolve seamlessly from 4G well into 5G NSA and then 5G SA.
This is why your next step needs to be researched early: to optimize this upgrade as an investment and not a costly last-minute Band-Aid.
On the bright side, 5G offers an even bigger leap ahead.
If 4G was a gamechanger, finally normalizing video streaming thanks to its faster connection and shorter latency times, 5G promises to be up to 20 times faster again.
Wireless sunsets may involve hard work and investment in the short run, but over time they more than pay off in increased functionality and the incredible opportunities that come with each technical ‘sunrise.’
Is your business ready to make that leap?