Industry Voices

The 2G/3G sunset and global migration to 4G and 5G networks

5g

With US operator AT&T shutting off its 3G networks earlier in the year, the process of 2G / 3G sunset has officially started. We are seeing many operators and governments determining that it is time to migrate away from older 2G and 3G networks, with the spectrum re-allocated for the faster and more efficient 4G and 5G technologies.

This inevitable evolution is typically referred to as the “2G and 3G switch-off” but really, we should think of it as a logical and necessary step in the migration to new technologies. So where and how quickly is the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks happening? And what does this mean for the pace of the rollout of new 4G and 5G networks?

Overview of the global switch-off dynamic

By the end of June 2022, GSA had identified 135 operators that have either completed, planned or are in progress with 2G and 3G switch-offs in 68 countries and territories.

It’s a picture that is consistent across 2G and 3G networks. The GSA counted 75 operators in 42 countries and territories having either completed or planned 2G switch-offs. Of those, 23 operators in 14 countries and territories have completed 2G switch-offs; and more are coming as the association counts 52 operators in 32 countries and territories having planned 2G switch-offs.

As for 3G, the GSA counted 75 operators in 40 countries and territories having either completed, planned or are in progress with 3G switch-offs. Of those, 44 operators in 30 countries have planned 3G switch-offs and 26 operators in 15 countries and territories have completed 3G switch-offs. This trend is going to continue with more 3G switch-offs, as GSA records five operators in five countries and territories that have 3G switch-offs currently in progress.

At the last count, by the end of 2022 GSA expects to see 48 operators that have already completed with 2G/3G switch-off, with a further 96 planning and five in progress. This migration away from legacy 2G and 3G networks are not isolated cases but are part of a global trend towards 4G and 5G.

While these figures are very telling of the state of 2G and 3G networks globally, look deeper into operators’ plans and there is real regional variation. Europe is leading the way with the migration to 5G with the largest number of 2G and 3G networks being switched-off, with 93 operators, accounting for 63% of the total. Asia will be responsible for 31 (21%), followed by North America and the Middle East and Africa with eight (5%) each, and Oceania with seven (5%). Latin America and the Caribbean have just two (1%) 2G and 3G switch-offs.

So what does this all mean for the migration to 4G and 5G?

The migration to 4G and 5G

4G is a global success with over 6.6 billion subscriptions, connecting nearly two-thirds of mobile users worldwide. By the end of October 2022, GSA had identified 814 operators running public LTE networks providing mobile and/ or fixed wireless broadband services in more than 213 countries and territories worldwide.

With the switch-off, GSA’s research found that 53% of operators state that their upgrade technology to be both 4G and 5G, highlighting the importance of these to mobile technology; 31% stated they will be upgrading to 4G only; 13% will be moving to 5G; and 3% will be upgrading to 3G, 4G and 5G. While 5G remains the long-term destination, the importance of 4G is very clear as part of a wider strategic network evolution.

GSA has identified 509 operators in 155 countries and territories that have either launched, are deploying, have acquired spectrum licences to enable deployment, have demonstrated, are testing or trialling, or have been licensed to conduct field trials of 5G networks. GSA has catalogued 228 operators in 92 countries and territories that have, as of end of October 2022, announced 3GPP-compatible 5G service launches — either mobile or fixed wireless access.

Aside from the network itself, there is of course the not insignificant matter of ensuring there are enough devices and form factors available.

By October 2022, GSA had catalogued 1,650 announced 5G devices, an increase of 50.7% in the number of commercial 5G devices since the end of December 2021. Of these, 1,291 are understood to be commercially available, representing over 78% of all announced 5G devices. With 24 announced form factors from 207 different manufacturers, the ecosystem is in place to support a wide variety of commercial 5G services.

The rate of switch-off for both technologies will continue to increase, with the shutdown of 3G in particular outpacing that of its predecessor with numerous operators from around the globe planning to close these networks.

The rising number of 4G and 5G devices and adoption of newer technologies will see a slowing rate of adoption and use of 2G and 3G, furthering the need for operators and countries to free up spectrum for 4G and 5G upgrades. And what’s more, we’re only at the beginning of this process. The global data collated by GSA indicates that the most popular year for operators switching to 4G and 5G will be 2025, with 2G and 3G increasingly becoming a memory of the past.