SA sets Africa’s pace to sunset 2G, 3G networks

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 20 Mar 2024
In SA, 2G and 3G remain prevalent in suburban and rural areas of major cities.
In SA, 2G and 3G remain prevalent in suburban and rural areas of major cities.

South Africa is leading the way in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in sunsetting 2G and 3G mobile networks.

This is according to market research firm Ookla, which recently examined operators’ plans for sunsetting 2G and 3G networks in the Middle East and North Africa, and highlights the benefits and challenges of phasing out legacy networks.

Ookla notes SSA is just beginning this journey, with SA leading the way compared to other large markets like Nigeria, as it aims to shut down 2G and 3G by 2027.

The terms “2G sunset” and “3G sunset” refer to the process of phasing out or shutting down 2G and 3G wireless networks by mobile network operators.

Once a 2G or a 3G sunset takes place, devices that are built for 2G or 3G will become completely inoperable.

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

In SSA, 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.

Downward trend

South Africa is the only country in SSA with an established plan to sunset 2G and 3G networks, says Ookla.

It adds that Cell Analytics data shows a large concentration of 2G and 3G users in suburban and rural areas, as well as along transportation routes.

“SA plans to decommission these networks by 2027, but most countries, including Nigeria, have not yet set a date. We expect network sunsetting to be in full swing from 2030 onwards,” says Karim Yaici, lead industry analyst at Ookla covering the Middle East and Africa region.

Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence data showed the 2G/3G share of connections has been trending down in Nigeria and South Africa throughout 2023.

By February 2024, it notes, 3G penetration in Nigeria was at 7.4% and at 4.3% in South Africa, with 2G penetration significantly lower at 0.7% and 0.4%, respectively.

It explains this suggests more subscribers in Nigeria than in SA spend the majority of their time on 2G/3G.

Vodacom CTO Dejan Kastelic recently said amid the debate about faster sunsetting of older networking technologies, 3G should be switched off first.

Ookla believes Vodacom’s decision will significantly impact Cell C, whose contract customers use Vodacom’s network.

It adds that Telkom has already shut down most 2G services as they account for less than 1% of its traffic.

According to Ookla, MTN suggested 3G should be shut down before 2G, as migrating 2G devices to 4G will take longer than moving from 3G.

“This presents a challenge, as MTN has the highest proportion of 3G samples in South Africa, (according to Speedtest data) at 6.35% in January 2024, compared to 3.4% for Vodacom and 3.3% for Telkom,” says the research firm.

Ookla’s Cell Analytics service availability maps show 2G and 3G remain prevalent in suburban and rural areas of major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“While South Africa leads SSA in 4G and 5G penetration, 3G is still widespread and offers a satisfactory experience for basic use cases, like checking the news. 2G is less relevant since it supports mainly voice services but occupies a valuable sub-1GHz spectrum, which could be repurposed for more efficient technologies,” says Yaici.

In light of this, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) proposed a plan in 2022 to sunset 2G and 3G networks to free up spectrum for 5G and future technologies.

Initially, the plan aimed to shut down 2G and 3G networks by the end of June 2024 and March 2025, respectively.

The DCDT subsequently extended the deadlines twice to allow more time for the operators to prepare for the transition.

The most recent amendment was in February 2024, scheduling the phase-out to begin in June 2025 and conclude by the end of 2027. It will also include new spectrum auctions, likely to take place in 2024.

“The revised deadline seems to be more practical, but it still needs to be discussed with all the stakeholders to make sure the end-users and businesses don’t face any challenges during this transition. The DCDT will allow operators to choose which network to switch off first,” Yaici notes.

Legacy network reliance

The sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks is a global trend, led by developed countries, he adds. “It promises to bring benefits like faster data speeds, improved connectivity and more efficient spectrum usage.

“Yet, Sub-Saharan Africa trails in this transition because of the heavy reliance on legacy networks, the cost barrier to the operators and consumers, and the unequal distribution of new network infrastructure, especially in poorer regions.”

According to Yaici, 2G and 3G networks form the backbone of mobile communications for a large proportion of the population, enabling vital services such as voice and mobile money transactions.

“Operators thus face the challenge of investing in advanced network rollouts, while maintaining and even expanding their legacy networks to ensure everyone has access to communication services.”