The beginning of the end: VodafoneZiggo switches off 3G network

The Vodafone and Liberty joint-venture VodafoneZiggo decided to switch off its 3G network to bring “The Netherlands much faster, safer and stabler mobile internet.”

In a release called “End of the 3G era”, VodafoneZiggo announced that “as of February 4th 2020, Vodafone will take its 3G network off the air.” The company, one of the first mobile operators to switch off 3G, explained the main rationale behind the decision is to free up frequencies for 4G, so that consumers currently only served by 3G networks can enjoy mobile internet “a fraction better”. Deploying 5G in the future on the frequencies made available is also on the card.

VodafoneZiggo warned those consumers that have held on to their phones since before its 4G service went live in 2013 that they may lose internet connections on their phones. It also suggested old SIM users order new SIMs with 4G enabled.

3G, first switched on by NTT DoCoMo in 2001, has been using 900MHz and 1800MHz in Europe and Asia Pacific, the frequencies that are valuable for mobile operators to roll out newer generations of wireless technologies to large proportions of the population. Meanwhile, the 384kbit/s data rate supported by 3G does not allow too much mobile internet to run on it.

It was only when 4G, with much higher data rate (theoretically up to 100Mbps downlink), was widely deployed did the whole mobile internet ecosystem start to flourish. So, it makes sense for the operators to drop the curtain on 3G and refarm these frequencies for 4G and 5G, which will generate higher returns.

Ironically although 3G went live 10 years after the first GSM network was launched (in 1991 in Finland), we may see 2G networks last longer. It is not so much that many people are still making phone calls or sending text messages over 2G, as it is powering large wide area IoT networks, such as utility metering, thanks to 2G’s low power consumption and wide coverage. The industry has also recognised this generational skip. For example, some Open RAN compatible radio products have been designed to support both 2G and 4G without bothering about 3G.

VodafoneZiggo tells operators to virtualize fast

The approach of 5G brings with it the promise of a whole range of exciting new use cases. But before we strap on our VR headsets, the operators need to create networks that live up to the promises.

Unlike the nimble startups which are developing a lot of the technologies that will benefit from 5G, large operators can be slow to adapt to change. In his presentation today at 5G World, Matthias Sauder, Director Network Mobile, VodafoneZiggo Netherlands, gave an update on their current activities to build a network ready for 5G and the issue of speed came up a fair bit.

“As an operator we need to move quicker than before,” said Sauder, highlighting demand from consumers and industry to achieve faster, more reliable networks. “One of the first steps we have to take is getting into the world of NFV and SDN and moving towards a fully virtualised network.”

This seems to be easier said than done. It’s complex to implement virtualisation and many operators have hit barriers integrating this with their current network architectures. Sauder, however, insists it is feasible to move quickly into a virtualised network and that this is the only way for operators to optimise their networks in a scalable way.

As for their updates, VodafoneZiggo have already hit milestones on current LTE networks in their journey to 5G, with a nationwide narrowband IoT network launched at the end of last year and more than 40% of their voice traffic on VoLTE. They are also planning the first services for enterprise customers via network slicing on 4G later in 2018.

Whilst 5G may still be tantalisingly out of reach for most, Sauder is focussed on innovating now and bringing new developments to market as soon as possible. With seemingly every other industry churning out new tech and features at an ever-increasing rate, telcos need to do the same.

At 5G World 2018, we’re surrounded by lots of fast-moving technologies, with co-located events focussing on AR, VR, AI, Blockchain and plenty more tech buzzwords. Perhaps this will give operators a nudge to innovate faster in the run up to 5G.