Marek’s Take: Who needs 5G when 47M U.S. customers still use 3G networks?

Marek's take

Early 5G deployments from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have so far focused on covering densely populated urban markets using millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. That high-band spectrum makes it possible for operators to deliver very high data speeds and lots of capacity, but only for a short distance. That’s why operators are anxious to deploy 5G in mid-band and low-band spectrum that promises better coverage, capacity and lower latency.

But not all operators have access to clear low-band and mid-band spectrum, and the next auction of mid-band spectrum (the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum auction) is not expected to occur until June 2020. With that in mind, some operators are starting to re-use their 3G spectrum in the 800 MHz and 950 MHz bands for 4G LTE and ultimately 5G. 

Verizon said in a December 2018 SEC filing that it is “aggressively” refarming 3G bands for LTE. The company had originally hoped to sunset its 3G network by year-end, but recently said it will wait until December 2020 to give customers more time to move off its 3G network. Likewise, AT&T said in its December 2018 SEC filing that it was contemplating using its 3G spectrum for network upgrades. The company plans to sunset its 3G network in early 2022 but noted that about 11% of its postpaid customers were still using 3G. It didn’t mention how many prepaid customers were on 3G.

T-Mobile and Sprint haven’t been as forthcoming when it comes to the retirement of their 3G networks. Sprint, which holds about 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz EBS and BRS spectrum in the top 100 markets, isn’t under as much pressure to refarm its 3G spectrum. And T-Mobile, which is in the process of acquiring Sprint, is probably waiting for that deal to be finalized before it announces its 3G network retirement plans.

In GSMA Intelligence’s 2019 Mobile Economy North America 2019 report, the trade association estimated that 17% of U.S. subscribers, or about 47.3 million, are still using 3G networks. A slightly older statistic from Cisco’s Mobile VNI report said that in 2017 about 20.5 percent of all connections in the U.S. were on 3G networks.

That means that there are about 47.3 million wireless users that are getting by with circuit-switched voice services and data downloads speeds that max out at 3.1 Mbps.  

Where are all those 3G users? Many of them are customers of MVNOs. GoSmart Mobile started as a 3G-only MVNO, but it currently offers some 4G LTE data for free if users want to check Facebook. According to Jeff Moore, founder of Wave7 Research, GoSmart Mobile uses T-Mobile’s 3G network. On its Web site, GoSmart Mobile advertises rate plans that start at $15 per month that include 250 Mb of 3G data.

GoSmart is part of TracFone Wireless, which is owned by América Móvil. Moore noted that when TracFone purchased GoSmart in 2016 GoSmart had about 300,000 customers.

But GoSmart isn’t alone. Other MVNOs also offer 3G service. Ting Mobile says it provides service on GSM, HSPA and CDMA, as well as LTE.  Net10, another Tracfone sub-brand, still accepts devices that run on 3G spectrum bands.

It’s also likely that some Lifeline customers are 3G users. Lifeline is the FCC’s program to help make wireless services more affordable for low-income consumers. Lifeline provides subscribers with a discount on monthly cell service from participating providers, and its minimum guidelines call for customers to receive 3G data speeds. Not surprisingly, Lifeline providers include a lot of MVNOs such as Assurance Wireless, which is part of Sprint’s prepaid brand Virgin Mobile. Sprint recently got into trouble with the FCC for falsely collecting government subsidies for 885,000 subscribers to the Lifeline program even though those customers were inactive and not using the service.  

U.S. operators and their MVNO partners might want to expedite their efforts on getting these 47.3 million subscribers off the 3G networks and upgraded to LTE. With all this talk of 5G use cases and the growing demand for higher speed mobile data, there are millions who are getting by minimal data speeds and lower quality voice services.