Simon Baker
Simon Baker (Senior Research Director, Mobile Phones/Consumer Devices)

Once a Hugely Touted Jump into the Future, 3G Is Set to Become History

Anyone recently visiting Vienna or other German-speaking cities might get the impression that there is some vogue for tech nostalgia when they see the “3G” signs outside restaurants.

“Shouldn’t it be 5G? Well, if it’s correct maybe it’s better than WiFi after all,” they may have thought.

Actually, 3G stands for “geimpft, genesen, getestet” — three German past participles that stand for “vaccinated, recovered, tested”. If you don’t fall into one of these categories you are not supposed to enter.

So, it was all just part of the restrictions we face in accessing public places during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tech Nostalgia

In telecom terms, the signs are not completely out of place. 3G is on the way out and maybe deserves a bit of nostalgia as it disappears. In brief, 3G is being killed off by 4G’s success. While all the talk in telecoms is about 5G now, 4G is a difficult act to follow.

With nearly all new smartphones in Europe 4G at least, there is little place now for 3G. Though the entry-level smartphones working on 3G frequencies are very cheap compared to 4G models, consumers do not want them. So 3G is being phased out. 3G is being withdrawn in Germany, where Deutsche Telekom has switched off its network, in the Czech Republic and in much of the Nordic region.

A Global Trend

This is not just happening in Europe. 3G service is being curtailed across the US, with all three of the main cellular operators (AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile) planning to turn off their 3G networks by the end of 2022.

In Asia there are similar trends going on. 3G was phased out in Australia and Malaysia last year and it will go off air in Indonesia this year. Vietnam, which also turned off its 3G network in 2021, has gone as far as to ban the import and production of 3G — and 2G — phones.

No Longer a Big Role in Emerging Markets

There isn’t much of a role for 3G even in Africa, the laggard of mobile development. 3G smartphones there may be cheap, and data tariffs expensive, but users overwhelmingly opt for 4G devices.

The years of the popularity of local brands in poorer countries, selling off-catalogue cheap but cheerful 3G phones from the assembly shops of Shenzhen, are largely over.

IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker puts global 3G smartphone sales at 16.8 million in the first three quarters of 2021, down from 21 million in the same period the year before. In Africa, still the biggest market, they were less than a tenth of smartphone sales in 3Q last year.

That leaves the global number of 3G subscriptions at 2.253 billion, according to the IDC Worldwide Semiannual Telecom Services Tracker. The number will fall by more than 10% this year and at the end of 2022 account for 16.5% of total global mobile subscriptions, 3.5% down over the year.

3G on the Way Out Before 2G

Cellular generations come around every decade or so. 3G has lasted through two generations or nearly 20 years (it was introduced into service in Europe in 2003).

There is much less of a move to turn off 2G, which will remain a national service in most countries, as its low frequency bands permit wide coverage. It provides a useful basic service in voice and SMS messaging on feature phones, whose demise has often been prematurely foreseen. And there is no move to phase out 4G, which is the backbone of cellular operations in most countries.

Too Much of an Intermediate Technology

3G has become the first major cellular generation to die away, except for the analogue Nordic Mobile Telephone, which was never very extensive and dates back to when mobile phones were more commonly found in cars.

3G has not stood the test of time because it was too much of an intermediate technology, with a data throughput that is now totally inadequate for modern mobile use of the internet, which continues to soar.

With 4G, which made a jump to a new transmission mode (orthogonal code division), higher frequencies allowed more throughput and this was to enable the video revolution on mobile. At the same time mobile operators largely avoided paying down so much money for operating licences. So maybe it should be no surprise that 3G no longer makes the cut and is on the way out.

So Much Was Expected of 3G

At its launch, 3G was the subject of massive enthusiasm. The launch of 3G UMTS in Europe was accompanied by huge government auctions, especially in Germany and the UK. According to the Wall Street Journal, European operators spent $150 billion on 3G licenses and infrastructure.

Within a few months mobile operators realised they had plunked down too much money on the table, and some retrenched on their plans. While making the wrong bet was a financial burden, phasing out a failed standard is not that simple either.

There may be a lot to be gained from getting rid of a network that is under utilised, as the frequencies can be reused and give more capacity, but unfortunately for the operators, they can’t just turn off a cellular generation and forget about it.

Closing Down a Network Is Hard to Do

Weening legacy users off the old and onto the new is a major challenge. There’s a whole bunch of other hardware beyond 3G phones, such as early smart home and IoT devices, Kindle readers and ebooks, that also won’t work once 3G is switched off. Some of the IoT services affected have been car safety features, not all of which can be switched to different frequencies.

The initial challenge is simply informational. All these users need to be notified and replacement devices proposed. A study by Ting Mobile in the US suggested that four-fifths of 3G device users were unaware their services would be switched off.

Then disgruntled and inconvenienced users must be mollified that the change is necessary. In the Czech Republic, where Vodafone turned off its 3G in March last year, the company put out a lot of PR to convince users that the switch-off would mean a better service on other standards, while users of 3G service would still be able to retain a 2G service on those devices. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom offered to upgrade 3G users to 4G at no extra cost.

Just like COVID restrictions on entering cafes, some people will be relieved when it’s all over.


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