The end of the 3G era is inching closer in the UK, after Vodafone and EE switched off their final remaining sites.

Nick Wood

February 28, 2024

3 Min Read

That just leaves Three – which aims to complete its shutdown by the end of this year – and Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), which isn't due to start retiring its 3G network until 2025.

For Vodafone, it marks the end of a project that kicked off more than two years ago.

"The 3G legacy switch off has been a massive programme and I'd like to thank my team for their hard work to make this a success," said Andrea Dona, Vodafone's UK network director. "With switch off complete, we can start to redeploy the remaining spectrum which will ultimately lead to stronger and faster 4G and 5G across the UK. All on top of our existing 4G and 5G network improvement programmes. Good news for our customers, businesses and the wider UK economy."

As pointed out when the retirement plan was announced back in January 2022, Vodafone by then had already refarmed most of its 3G spectrum, and only a single 5 MHz chunk of 900-MHz spectrum remained.

With that in mind, customers probably shouldn't expect a sudden and dramatic improvement in throughput. However, what it does mean is that spectrum can be used to deliver data much more efficiently, saving on power and related opex.

Indeed, Voda said that a modern 5G network is 10 times more energy efficient than 3G, so shutting down the latter will bring it a step closer to meeting its net zero target by 2027.

A similar point was made by Greg McCall, chief networks officer of EE parent BT. He said in a blog post this week that the telco switched off its last remaining 3G site in Belfast.

"Having spent 2023 phasing out customer reliance on 3G and completing a detailed pilot switch off in Warrington, we were able to confidently start the nationwide 3G switch off as planned in early January," McCall wrote in a blog post.

"Since then, we have been responsibly and methodically retiring the technology across more than 18,000 mobile sites, with dedicated pauses built into the process so we could closely monitor each region in real-time," he said. "We have now successfully completed the nationwide closure of our 3G network, resulting in big improvements for both our customers and the environment."

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Both EE and Vodafone's 3G shutdown announcements were accompanied by publicity campaigns designed to spare affected customers from any nasty surprises.

Their efficacy is debatable. A study by price comparison site Uswitch in January revealed that 2.7 million consumers weren't sure if their device would work on 4G/5G networks, while more than half had not seen any communication about 3G networks being switched off. 43 percent were unaware that they were being shut down at all.

With that in mind, there may be a few people finding out the hard way this week.

Still, Vodafone and EE will get another go at it when they begin sunsetting their 2G infrastructure. EE plans to get it done by the end of this decade, and the others are expected to follow suit by 2033.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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