Vodafone UK prepares for 3G shutdown in 2023

Similar to operators in the U.S., Vodafone in the U.K. is shutting down its 3G network to make room for newer technologies. In Vodafone UK’s case, it’s giving customers until 2023 to prepare for the transition.

Most of the phones sold in the U.K. over the past 10 years are 4G/LTE capable, so the switch doesn’t affect the majority of people. But Vodafone reminds folks that a lot of older relatives and neighbors are still using their old 3G phones, so they need to upgrade or prepare for service disruptions.

If Vodafone customers have a phone that doesn’t have 4G, they will no longer be able to use it to access the internet over 3G once the 3G network is shut off. However, “you will still be able to make and receive calls and texts,” according to the network operator.

That’s noteworthy because in the U.S., operators, for the most part, are telling customers that their old phones aren’t going to work once the 3G network goes away, and that includes phone calls. So the question is: What’s different in the U.K.?

A Vodafone media spokesperson wasn’t immediately available for comment. However, Fierce reached out to Opensignal analyst Ian Fogg, who explained that the difference in the U.K. is that carriers have been keeping their 2G networks (GSM) working and they’re planning to switch off 3G first.

“This means that even phones that lack 4G/LTE or that have 4G/LTE but lack VoLTE (4G voice) can still make calls,” he said.

He cited two reasons to keep GSM/2G working:

  • Support IoT/M2M deployments, often with large enterprise customers.
  • Offer traditional voice telephony and SMS for users with phones that lack 4G/LTE or have 4G/LTE but lack VoLTE.

Examples of phones that have 4G/LTE but no VoLTE include the iPhone 6/6 Plus. Devices in the 6s range were the first iPhones to have VoLTE support, he noted.

“All of this is another reason why 5G matters — the more spectrum available for 5G, the better the experience for 5G users,” Fogg said. “And, by switching off 3G, modern network generations are more efficient and can support more users and/or more data traffic on the same wireless spectrum bandwidth.”

Last week, Apple unveiled the 5G version of the iPhone SE, and today, Samsung is announcing the Galaxy A53 5G. Here’s Fogg’s analysis of how the 5G versions compare to older 4G.

U.S. winds down 2G, 3G

In the U.S., AT&T shut down its 3G network on January 31. T-Mobile plans to retire Sprint’s 3G CDMA network by March 31 and T-Mobile’s 3G network by July 1. Verizon set a 3G CDMA shutdown date of December 31, 2022.

As for 2G networks, it’s hard to find an exact end date when Verizon shut its down. Even today, a company spokesperson was hard-pressed to find the date. But intentions were for that to happen in the 2019-2020 timeframe.

AT&T shut down its 2G network in 2017. Interestingly, back then, T-Mobile used its 2G network to entice AT&T customers to come over for IoT services. Even today, T-Mobile’s website states that no date has been set for its final 2G sunset, but PhoneArena figures it will the end of this year.

Repurposing spectrum

In the U.K., 2G networks eventually will get shuttered. Late last year, the U.K. government announced that mobile network operators would not be offering 2G and 3G past 2033 at the latest, and said it would work with operators to ensure a smooth transition.

Like other operators around the world, Vodafone plans to repurpose the 3G radio frequencies for faster, more energy-efficient 4G and 5G services. According to Vodafone, 5G is 10 times more energy efficient than 3G.

Vodafone said it’s already retired 3G in Germany and Italy, so it will be drawing upon those experiences when switching off 3G in the U.K.