Vodafone UK will start switching off 3G next year

After 17 years and many billions of pounds, Vodafone UK is preparing to call time on its 3G network.

Nick Wood

January 25, 2022

4 Min Read
Hexagons and 3G, 4G, 5G letters. Evolution of cellular mobile communication networks. 3D illustration.
Hexagons and 3G, 4G, 5G letters. Evolution of cellular mobile communication networks. 3D illustration.

After 17 years and many billions of pounds, Vodafone UK is preparing to call time on its 3G network.

The operator announced on Tuesday that it will begin phasing out the service in 2023 as part of an upgrade intended to improve the performance of its 4G and 5G networks.

“3G has connected so many customers over the last 17 years, but the future is 4G and 5G. We’re going to be focused on giving customers a faster and more reliable mobile experience, and minimising our impact on the environment by taking away a layer of our network that uses inefficient equipment,” said a statement from Vodafone UK CEO Ahmed Essam.

Vodafone says these days less than 4 percent of the mobile data traffic carried on its networks use 3G. That’s down from more than 30 percent in 2016. There are two reasons for this: one is that the majority of Vodafone customers use 4G, and the other is that Vodafone has already refarmed most of its 3G spectrum. Today it only operates 3G on a single 5 MHz channel in the 900 MHz band.

“Vodafone’s planned retirement of its UK 3G network represents a positive move away from legacy technology towards more efficient 4G and 5G services,” said Sharad Sharma, VP and head of network and B2B at IT services provider NTT Data, in a research note. “Not only do 4G and 5G enable Vodafone to provide faster and more reliable services for its customers, but the greater efficiency of these technologies also supports Vodafone in its strategy to reach net zero carbon emissions across its UK operations by 2027.”

Still, Vodafone is aware of the risk that a minority of customers – and these typically tend to be older and less tech-savvy than average – will lose service if they haven’t upgraded their handset since 2013, when Vodafone began rolling out 4G. In addition, there are still gaps in 4G coverage, and 5G is still patchy, but presumably Voda hopes to address this issue by reusing the aforementioned 900 MHz spectrum.

So it really boils down to making sure affected customers are made aware of the upcoming change, and ensuring they have compatible devices when the time comes. To that end, Vodafone will spend this year publicising the switch-off. It has also partnered with digital skills charity, Good Things Foundation, to help spread the word to vulnerable people.

“With the move away from 3G, people risk being disconnected, locked out and left behind. That’s why we’re so pleased to be working with Vodafone to ensure as many people as possible continue to have the essential digital access they need,” said Helen Milner, CEO of Good Things Foundation.

“More efficient network services are crucial for a more sustainable future, but it’s vital that customers with legacy technology are not left behind,” said Sharma. “Clear communication about the retirement of these services is necessary to ensure everyone can be part of the shift to 4G and 5G.”

Today’s announcement sees Vodafone become the second UK mobile operator after EE to announce it is switching off 3G. The latter plans to phase out its 3G network from January 2023. O2 and Three UK have yet to announce their switch-off plans.

When the curtain does finally come down on the UK’s last remaining 3G networks, it will mark the end of a tumultuous era for telecoms. In 2000, the UK caught the world’s attention when it held Europe’s first 3G spectrum auction, one that fetched bids totalling a staggering £22.5 billion. That same year, the dot-com bubble burst, sending telecoms and the fledgling Internet market into recession.

Amid this economic turmoil, the operators that had spent billions of pounds on spectrum didn’t have a whole lot of money left over to spend on actually building out their networks, and so 3G coverage rolled out at a snail’s pace, and performance was underwhelming. During this time, there were doubts over whether operators would ever recoup their investments in 3G, as well as endless debates about what would actually spur consumer adoption of mobile data services – the so-called ‘killer app’ (spoiler alert: it was the iPhone what did it, and the first one didn’t even come with 3G).

Bearing all this in mind, there are probably a few telco execs out there who can’t wait to see the back of 3G.

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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