Race to sunset legacy network must start with 3G

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 05 Dec 2023
The sunsetting of legacy technologies should start with 3G followed by 2G, Vodacom execs believe.
The sunsetting of legacy technologies should start with 3G followed by 2G, Vodacom execs believe.

Amid the debate about faster sunsetting of older networking technologies, 3G should be switched off first.

This was the word from Vodacom CTO Dejan Kastelic, speaking at a recent media roundtable hosted on the sidelines of Africa Tech Festival 2023 in Cape Town.

There are still nearly two billion 2G and 3G subscribers worldwide, with most of them expected to gradually migrate to 4G and 5G between 2023 and 2029, based on the latest Ericsson Mobility Report.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the report indicates, 2G subscriptions will maintain a significant share during the period under review, with total subscriptions at 27%. This is mainly due to the region’s largely rural population, for whom broadband coverage is limited and smartphone affordability is a challenge.

While sunsetting of these technologies varies across markets, Kastelic said “3G should be the one technology to be sunsetted first, not the 2G” in the region.

Shrinking 3G

According to Kastelic, one of the big challenges Vodacom faces in its markets is around affordability of 4G devices.

The GSM Association has indicated a similar challenge for the Sub-Saharan Africa region, saying expensive smartphones remain the biggest barrier to getting people in the region online.

Kastelic explained that one of the methods to address access to devices, for which Vodacom is in discussions with regulators, is the sunset of the technology.

“We’re discussing with regulators in terms of what would be the best way to support this. 3G, if you think about the technology and what it brings in terms of the depreciation value of 4G, it’s not really a big difference. Same as in voice, there is no difference between 2G, 3G or 4G. Our view is that 3G should be the first technology that we see sunsetted.”

He said Vodacom is seeing some European and Asian markets making this move.

“If you shut down 3G, that will actually convert back into 4G, and globally there will be much higher volume of production in terms of the 4G terminals and that also drives down the cost of the 4G chipsets and 4G terminals.

“This is what we are trying to promote in our markets, should we agree on the timelines for the 3G shutdown – what will be the steps and how the regulator, government and import tax duties can support this.”

Ryan van den Bergh, managing executive of technology strategy, architecture, spectrum and assurance at Vodacom Group, added: “If we look at the statistics…3G is shrinking faster than 2G. The reason is that there’s a lot of old machine-to-machine, like vehicle tracking and old utility meters, that tends to stay in the network for a long time, especially if it’s a stationary item.

“We have to continue supporting those devices. What will probably happen is that there’ll be a natural attrition of 3G as everybody moves over to 4G. You’ll then probably have a slower churn of 2G coming out of voice as that gets shut down, and there will be a long tail of machine-to-machine 2G devices. It could still be 10 to 15 years before some countries are able to switch that off entirely.

“There is a big drive to actually push more 3G out [of the network]. There are some countries that are going 2G first, but it depends entirely on your device ecosystem. Across most of Africa though, 3G seems to be first.

“In the more developed markets, some players are focusing more on 2G – that’s a device ecosystem thing. If they’ve been running for a much longer period of time – most of their population is already on 4G – then it’s a little bit easier to have that conversation.”

Additionally, Kastelic said localisation of devices can drive access to 4G-enabled devices.

“In Kenya, we have a local assembly and the logic is to get raw materials into the country… then do the assembly locally, which also promotes local jobs. Kenya is already doing that with Safaricom. We’re now looking at other countries to see if there is an opportunity for us to do the same.

“In Egypt, for example, we have a partnership with Samsung and we are taking the full production line of the lowest cost terminals from Samsung, to utilise that into internet.”