The clock is ticking for 3G in Europe

Nokia's Espoo campus
Nokia's campus near Helsinki
EC pic

Those of us who were working in the industry when 3G networks started to pop up all over Europe will remember that those early launches were plagued by delays and often underwhelming performances, as speeds failed to live up to expectations.

One of my favourite moments that relates to early 3G missteps dates back to 2002. I was in Helsinki, waiting for Finnish operator Sonera to launch its 3G network to coincide with Nokia’s first dual-mode 3G handset: the 6650. But as I reported at the time, one thing seemed to be missing: the actual 3G network launch.

As it turned out, Sonera’s UMTS network was just not ready in time. The operator tried to claim it was providing “3G services on its existing GSM/GPRS or 2.5G networks”, but it cannot have been a comfortable moment for the executives as they fended off questions from hundreds of cynical journalists.

Of course much has happened since then. Like its European peers, Sonera has moved on to 4G and beyond, with 5G now more than a gleam in engineers’ eyes. 3G also ended up living up to its hype, more or less, but only after the arrival of HSPA technology.

Now, it seems we will soon be waving a tearful goodbye to 3G networks, at least in Europe. Vodafone Group, for example, has said it plans to start shutting down its 3G networks in Europe from 2020 as subscribers move over to 4G. In a recent interview, Kye Prigg, head of mobile network at Vodafone UK, told me that within the next four years “we will have most of our customers on 4G,” meaning that the 3G network will decline from a data perspective.

4G has certainly been more of a success story than 3G: it got off to a better start and lived up to the promise of delivering proper mobile broadband services for the first time. Meanwhile 2G continues to be an incredibly successful technology that has been around for decades. Now, it looks like 2G will even outlive 3G. As Prigg pointed out, 2G is being given a new lease of life because of machine-to-machine communications and the IoT.

“We expect to continue the 2G network for quite some time,” said Prigg.--Anne

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