AT&T’s Donovan says 2G network in ‘soft lock,’ decommissioning to begin in coming months

AT&T is in the process of turning off its 2G network. But that doesn’t mean the carrier is taking the network apart just yet.

AT&T’s John Donovan said that, as promised, the carrier is in the process of turning off its 2G service. He said the carrier has enacted a “soft lock” on roughly half of its network, and that it will activate the lock on 100% of its network over the next 4-6 weeks. A month after that, the company plans to start decommissioning the network and taking down the equipment it uses to run the network.

Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations, explained that a soft lock is a reversible process that will allow AT&T to quickly re-activate the network on a market-by-market basis if necessary. He said the company is using the soft lock approach to ensure that it doesn’t deactivate service to any critical services like medical equipment. He said the company has worked to ensure that regulators and customers were alerted about its plans to turn off its 2G network, and the soft lock is a way to respond to customers who may not have received the warning—though Donovan added that no customers have yet complained that they were unaware of the carrier’s plans to turn off its 2G services.

AT&T first announced in August of 2012 that it would turn off its 2G network by 2017. The company is turning off the network in order to move customers onto more efficient services and spectrum, and to reuse that 2G spectrum for LTE and other services.

"We expect to fully discontinue service on our 2G networks by approximately January 1, 2017. Throughout this multi-year upgrade process, we will work proactively with our customers to manage the process of moving to 3G and 4G devices, which will help minimize customer churn," AT&T said in a regulatory filing in 2012.

Donovan declined to discuss the effects of AT&T’s 2G network shutdown, including how many customers the carrier may have lost through the process. He said the carrier expects to provide details on the operation in its fourth-quarter results, scheduled to be released Jan. 25.

"If you look at the 2G curve, nature was doing most of the work,” Donovan said, explaining that most of AT&T’s 2G customers have already upgraded to newer devices that support the carrier’s 3G and 4G services.

AT&T isn’t the only carrier shutting down its 2G network. Verizon confirmed to FierceWireless last year that it is currently planning to shut down its CDMA 1X network by Dec. 31, 2019. However, the carrier said it would work with its current CDMA 1X customers and would consider operating its CDMA 1X network into 2020 if those customers need more time to move onto Verizon's LTE network.

Not surprisingly, AT&T’s competitors are using the company’s 2G network shutdown as a competitive wedge. For example, T-Mobile late last year began offering free SIM cards and service to users of IoT services on AT&T’s 2G network.

Other recent network shutdowns include Sprint’s WiMAX and iDEN decommissioning efforts.