Schoolar: Mobile operators aren't in a rush to say goodbye to 2G

Daryl Schoolar ovum

Daryl Schoolar

Sometimes when I start a project I have a pretty good idea what I will discover. Other times the results are far different than what I expected. That is the case when it comes to mobile operators' current plans when it came to shutting down their 2G and 3G networks.

When I started researching current trends in network shutdowns with another colleague at Ovum I was pretty sure that I would come away with plenty of examples. Since early 2014 requests for this type of information had been steadily coming in from clients. It was asked so frequently and in such a way that I was sure there were plenty of examples. I even vaguely remember seeing headlines about different 2G shutdowns.  What I did find, however, when I researched this topic was there really weren't that many network shutdowns, just lots of articles about the few that had happened.

When looking at reasons for shutdowns of older network generations they fell into two categories. The first reason being a shutdown due to some sort of government regulation, such as SingTel and StarHub's (both Singapore) planned 2017 GSM shuttering.  The more common reason was commercial reasons. But, even then most of the commercially driven shutdowns were due to very specific reasons. They were networks without much future--usually CDMA or iDEN.  This isn't the same as some mass 2G/GSM shutdown to make room for LTE as we were originally requested to investigate. Instead what we found was lots of spectrum refarming and the coexistence of more than one network generation within a spectrum band.

Mobile operators as a whole have little reason to rush to shutdown their older 2G networks. Infrastructure vendors are doing a good job at making the cost of maintaining an older network standard negligible. With multi-standard base stations there is little cost difference between running LTE and GSM.  At the same time infrastructure vendors have introduced new technologies that provide better GSM spectrum performance. This allows mobile operators to reduce the amount of spectrum dedicated for GSM without compromising performance.  So for mobile operators the question of shutting down an older network really shifts from the cost of running the network to the cost of shutting it down.

One of the big costs to shutting down a network is migrating a subscriber to a new network. To retain subscribers a mobile operator will have to either fully purchase or deeply subsidize new devices. If not, the mobile operator risks churn and lost revenues. Obviously this is an expensive proposition and is why we see operators milking their 2G networks instead.  No need to pay for the cost of a quick shutdown if not needed.  Instead take a slow approach to shuttering the network, and let the natural course of handset replacement ease the costs.  There is no need to shutdown the network entirely, just stop marketing services (at least to the general public) on the older network.

Machine-to-machine communications are another reason operators aren't looking to fully shutdown their older 2G networks. There is still a significant M2M base using GSM, and those modules have a much longer life cycle than phones. The cost of replacing modules, like replacing handsets, is very cost prohibitive as well. Secondly LTE isn't ready to take on the full burden of M2M services yet. LTE-M still needs to mature with improved module battery life along with lower module prices.

One interesting observation coming out of the study was that the focus on 2G as a shutdown candidate could be all-wrong. 3G (WCDMA/HSPA) actually could go before 2G with many operators.

2G still provides value in terms of M2M and roaming. WCDMA, however, could be easily replaced by LTE, especially now that LTE handsets are dropping in cost. Broadband on LTE is better and more spectrally efficient than 3G.  2G and LTE, with VoLTE, can both handle voice services.

So while there will continue to be network shutdowns, shutdowns en masse most likely won't start until the end of the decade. The cost of shutting down older networks just don't currently outweigh the value of keeping them running.

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.