The refarmed spectrum will be invaluable for improving more modern mobile services, but the accelerated shutdown timeline could present an issue for millions of 2G and 3G customers
Earlier this month, South Africa’s Communications Minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, proposed a framework for the shutting down of the country’s 2G and 3G networks by 2025, as part of the Ministry’s new spectrum policy.
This week, the government has approved the proposal, suggesting that this accelerated timeline will allow spectrum to be refarmed to bolster 4G and 5G services, as well as other services.
“Radio frequency spectrum is a finite natural resource that is vital to the growth of South Africa’s digital economy and communication infrastructure. The proposed policy intends to support the spectrum allocation and licensing for fixed mobile; broadcasting; aeronautical and marine; research and development; community access, and other relevant industries,” said an official statement.
“The policy also seeks to promote equity and fair allocation to contribute towards the transformation of the sector and accessibility of digital connectivity even in outlying parts of the country.”
The plan calls for 2G device licences to be prohibited by the end of June 2023, with services shutdown by the end of March 2024 and complete network closure by end of June the same year. 3G will be given a slightly longer timeline, with services shutdown by the end of 2024 and the network fully decommissioned by the end of March 2025.
These timelines seem largely in line with the nation’s mobile operators’ own plans, though this could force operators to shut down their 2G services sooner than expected.
Earlier this year, MTN said it would begin to retire its 3G network from 2025, with 2G to follow some time later due to its broader applications for machine-to-machine communications. Similarly, Vodacom has previously said that it would aim to turn off its 3G network by 2023, before its 2G network by 2024.
While 2G networks are older and can provide only limited services by modern standards, they are still accessed by millions of customers, not to mention the various M2M devices that will need to be migrated to alternative spectrum.
The scale of this challenge should not be underestimated. In 2021, for example, Vodafone data suggested that around six million 2G devices are sold every year in South Africa, with roughly 14 million customers still using 2G devices – all of whom would need to upgrade to more expensive 4G-capable devices before the shutdown is fully implemented.
Of all the South African mobile operators, it seems that Telkom is in the best position when it comes to shutting down these legacy networks, having announced in January that it had already shut down 80% of its 3G network. The decommissioning of the company’s 2G network had been announced back in March 2020.
Similar 2G and 3G sunsetting plans are being introduced by operators all over the world, striving to make the most efficient use of their spectrum assets, as well as do away with legacy technologies that are expensive to support.
Indeed, earlier this week BT gave an update on their own plans to shutdown their 3G network and other legacy infrastructure, suggesting that doing so would save them around £500 million over the coming decade.
Are legacy network shutdown plans moving swiftly enough in the global telecoms industry? Or are operators being pushed to move too quickly? Join the operators in discussion at this year’s live Total Telecom Congress