3G sunset is not a surprise event — Entner

Roger Entner

The wireless industry has gone above and beyond to reach anyone who still has a 3G phone and convince them to switch over to a 4G or 5G smartphone. They have called people, sent text messages, and redirected calls to customer service to make sure people knew that their devices were about to stop working. The carriers even sent letters to the customers affected by the 3G shutdown offering them a free device just so that they can stay connected. All of this during the pandemic and supply chain shortages.

The IoT partners of the carriers were informed of the looming shutdown of the 3G networks before 2019 – well before the pandemic started – evidenced by their notices to their customers. Now they are complaining that they were caught unprepared and need more time because the pandemic and the supply chain shortages snuck up on them. Even though the first 3G networks are shutting down, preparations have been made that these companies can use other 3G networks until the end of the year when the last 3G networks are being turned off.

One can only hope that around four years' notice — roughly half of the life of a wireless generation, which is where the “G” in 3G comes from — is enough for companies to be prepared. It’s not like this is the first time an old generation is being made obsolete by a newer one.

IoT providers knew since 2014 that wireless carriers were moving away from 3G. In January 2015, a security industry website wondered if alarm dealers should be worried about Verizon sunsetting 3G service. By 2018, it was common knowledge that Verizon would shut down its 3G network by the end of 2019, AT&T in 2021, and T-Mobile in 2020. These were the deadlines the IoT industry knew it had to work against. The wireless carriers extended the life of their 3G networks, but it is still catching some IoT providers unprepared, and they are asking for another extension. Quite a few dogs must have eaten the IoT providers’ homework.

RELATED: AT&T says alarm industry is trying to ‘slam the brakes’ on its 3G shutdown

Meanwhile, some folks like Eric Schmidt in a WSJ Op-Ed are sounding the alarm bells that low-band 5G is not fast enough to compete with China.

One of the things many people don’t realize is that 5G, unlike any other wireless generation before it, is not inherently faster than the previous generation, in this case 4G. By and large, the reason why 5G is faster than 4G is because it has more spectrum. Since low-band spectrum is all taken and there is not a lot of it, the countries that allocated mid-band spectrum early, like China, have a speed advantage.

In the United States, we first had to liberate the mid-band spectrum from the satellite industry and the Department of Defense. Since the U.S. is not a dictatorship like China, this takes a while. Now mid-band auctions have raised more than $100 billion in proceeds for the U.S. Treasury, and we see on these newly launched networks solid 400 Mbps to 2 Gbps speeds. In order to speed up 5G in the low-bands, the wireless carriers need to use more spectrum. Since no new low-band spectrum is available, the carriers have to shut down old, obsolete technologies like 3G.

They have talked about shutting down since 2014, and started giving deadlines in 2018. This would allow the U.S. wireless carriers to use more of their low-band spectrum for 5G. Carrier aggregation is one of the areas where U.S. carriers are leading the world. It combines the range and in-building capabilities of low-band with the large bandwidth from mid-band that has difficulties penetrating buildings by itself.

In order to move forward, it is imperative that we shut down 3G. Let’s hope that the past isn’t the prologue: Once upon a time, the United States led the world in 1G wireless. The FCC’s requirement at the time that wireless carriers needed to keep 1G analog networks alive beyond its useful life and dedicate spectrum to it that could have otherwise been used for 2G was a significant factor that led to the U.S. losing its leadership to Europe. We don’t have to repeat the same painful lesson.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 5G vendor ecosphere is flourishing. 5G without Qualcomm is just unthinkable. Airspan, based in Florida, is providing 5G RAN equipment to Rakuten and others. Component providers like Marvell and Analog Devices partnered on Open RAN reference designs, which have been taken up by equipment manufacturers. Altiostar and Mavenir are providing the necessary software for 5G networks to run. American hyperscalers like Amazon and Microsoft are powering 5G. The Telecom Infra Project’s Open RAN project has not only Intel and Dell as part of the board but also Facebook (now Meta) as part of the board of directors. The other four are European wireless carriers. The breadth of American companies playing a role in 5G is huge and growing, while Huawei has fallen from its number one position as wireless infrastructure provider.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes all the time.

Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner and catch him on The Week with Roger podcast.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.