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Telco industry body calls for industry-driven 2G, 3G sunsetting

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 03 Jun 2024
Government identifies 31 December 2027 as deadline for the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks.
Government identifies 31 December 2027 as deadline for the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks.

The Association of Comms and Technology (ACT) believes an industry-led approach should drive the sunsetting of 2G and 3G mobile networks in SA.

This, after the communications department last week published its policy document, which includes plans for the shutdown of older-generation networks.

The document sets preliminary dates for the 2G and 3G sunset, with the final proposed date being 31 December 2027, for the total shutdown of these networks.

It also proposes an economic and regulatory impact assessment be conducted before these networks are shut down.

ACT CEO Nomvuyiso Batyi says the 31 December 2027 deadline has not been “well received” by the industry body, which represents the interests of the mobile network operators.

According to Batyi, South African network operators have “already commenced with 3G migration without government intervention” – a move that’s largely been driven by the industry.

“ACT maintains its support for an industry-led approach that promotes the adoption of newer technologies by users without imposing stringent government-mandated deadlines,” she says.

“ACT believes this is a more prudent approach to avoid the risk of disrupting services for millions of users who still rely on legacy technologies, and to manage the transition at a realistic pace instead of targeting strict government-imposed deadlines.”

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 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 by 2029, according to Ericsson’s Mobility Report.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, says the report, 2G subscriptions will maintain a significant share during this period, 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.

It is estimated that 3G was the dominant technology in SA at the end of 2023, with statistics showing just over 60 million connected handsets and devices.

Research firm Omdia forecasts that 2G and 3G networks will still represent 0.4% and 7%, respectively, of the country's subscriptions by 2028.

Nomvuyiso Batyi, CEO of the Association of Communications and Technology. (Photograph by Lesley Moyo)
Nomvuyiso Batyi, CEO of the Association of Communications and Technology. (Photograph by Lesley Moyo)

Given that the number of these connections is still high, ACT believes society consumption behaviour must dictate the switch-off date, otherwise telcos risk denying services to millions who still depend on the legacy devices using these networks.

“While the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies has pushed the switch-off date for both technologies out to 31 December 2027, ACT does not believe this approach is ideal,” states Batyi.

“SA’s economic situation is different from developed countries, where adoption of smart devices is widely taken by the majority. SA is economically unequal and has high unemployment. The 2G and 3G devices are affordable to these segments of society.

“At the beginning of 2022, over a period of seven years, a total of 56 networks have been shut down, of which 36 were 2G networks and 20 were 3G networks. None of the network shutdowns observed were because of strict government-set deadlines. These shutdowns were mainly market-led, with regulatory guidance provided by the relevant regulator.”

Batyi says the global trend is to sunset 3G networks first. “2G is regarded as having a long tail due to machine-to-machine (M2M) interfaces used in industries, such as emergency services, security, vehicle tracking and metering in utilities applications.”

Necessary steps

Thecla Mbongue, research manager for Middle East and Africa at Omdia, says 2G and 3G sunsetting is a necessary step for the regulator, which wants to reallocate these frequencies to new technologies.

However, Mbongue indicates that most telcos are not optimistic about shutting down 2G and 3G by the end of 2027.

“The concerns are mostly around 2G networks, which are still largely in use to provide M2M/IOT services. Upgrading the devices to 4G or 5G devices is costly for telcos and very often the applications do not necessarily need technologies beyond 2G to run efficiently.

“Another issue is the slower handset replacement rate in SA and Africa, in general. In SA, the prepaid segment represents around 80% of the country's mobile subscriptions. Most prepaid users do not have access to a device financing scheme and paying for a smartphone upfront is an investment for them. As a result, service providers will have to motivate people still using 2G and 3G handsets to migrate to at least 4G from now on.”

Christopher Geerdts, MD of BMIT, highlights that the dates in the policy document are preliminary, as ICASA will do an economic and regulatory impact assessment to determine the sequencing and related deadlines.

“BMIT supports the time extension but believes the ICASA assessment will need to commence and be completed soon, as the sunset process is set to begin in September. The impacted stakeholders as a whole will need to endorse the deadlines to ensure they take into account relevant considerations, before the preliminary deadlines are finalised.”

Even though there might be preference for a personalised sunsetting schedule based on unique customer profiles, Geerdts says BMIT believes it is in the interests of the country to migrate all customers off 2G and 3G to capitalise on the performance and efficiency benefits of 4G and 5G.

In many other countries – where the switch-off ultimately depends on ensuring customers upgrade their devices in time – it becomes a difficult task if subscribers see no benefit to investing in upgrades, he notes.

In many countries, national deadlines have been extended more than once, he points out, adding that government could play an important role in helping to overcome the barriers to migration.

“It is useful for government and mobile operators to prioritise the migration, but also important for unique operator considerations to inform the map and timelines. Two other important stakeholders to consider are those who can’t afford upgrades and the IOT industry.

“BMIT supports the proposal by ACT of reducing ‘luxury taxes’ on smartphones − particularly entry-level units − which are important to expediting the sunsetting of 2G and 3G, but also to helping more South Africans enter the digital economy that many of us take for granted.”