UK Mobile Networks to turn off 2G and 3G by 2033

Mobile operators make commitment to open network architectures

UK mobile network operators have all agreed to switch off their 2G and 3G mobile data services by 2033 at the latest – freeing up room for 5G.

The four main networks that serve the UK – EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone – have all committed to cease offering second- and third-generation mobile data connections within the next 12 years.

“We welcome that some individual operators will switch off their networks, particularly their 3G networks, earlier than this date, and will announce their own plans about when and how they intend to do this,” the government said in a statement published today.

The confirmation of a deadline for the so-called ‘sunsetting’ of the outgoing networks was described as the “next step in the UK’s technological revolution” and essential in enabling the delivery of the UK’s 5G network.

“This… will free up spectrum for 5G and beyond, creating exciting possibilities for our everyday lives and business,” the government said.

“The move is also a key step in wider government measures on introducing new vendors to the UK mobile networks, contributing to nationwide security and resilience.

Establishing this date is necessary to provide much-needed clarity as to the likely commercial longevity of these technologies, and will enable users to confidently plan for their future. Transitioning away from these technologies will improve network efficiency.”

For those that continue to rely on 2G and 3G connections, a “responsible switch-off” process is promised. 

“The government… will continue to work with network operators to ensure a smooth transition that meets the needs of business users and consumers, including vulnerable groups,” the statement added.

As the old networks approach the end of their lifespan, those that come in their wake will increasingly be based not on infrastructure owned and operated solely by one company, but on cooperation between providers and the use of interoperable systems.

Open radio access networks (RAN) are conceived as technology ecosystems comprised of components from a range of different providers, with all companies adhering to the use of common standards and the interoperability of hardware and software platforms.

The UK Government and the four network operators have announced a “joint ambition” that, by the end of this decade, 35% of UK mobile network traffic will run on open RAN systems built from interoperable components.

“We recognise that mobile operators are currently taking forward plans to introduce and expand their 5G networks – while also undertaking work to extend coverage to the most rural parts of the UK,” the statement said.

“This ambition is not a mandate and, instead, realising it will require partnership and collaboration between government, mobile operators and the wider telecoms industry.”

The drive to embrace open standards is particularly significant in light of the decision to remove all Huawei kit from the UK’s 5G networks, the government claimed. As of the start of this year, O2, EE, Three and Vodafone are no longer allowed to invest in any new technology from the Chinese vendor for use in their UK networks.

In addition, all Huawei systems must be removed by 2027 – with mobile operators that fail to meet this deadline facing potential fines of up to £100,000 for every day they are in breach of the rules.

To mitigate the impact of the Huawei ban, a government-appointed taskforce last year began work on developing and delivering a “diversification strategy” for UK mobile networks. 

Support for the use of open RAN, which government will back with £250m of funding, is a key strand of this strategy. 

“Open network architectures will play a key role in enhancing the security and resilience of the networks that we rely on – now more than ever – to keep in touch and do business,” the government said.

“Following recent decisions the government has made around the use of high-risk vendors and the introduction of the Telecommunications Security Act, it is right that the government now sets out its ambitions to build a more competitive, innovative, and diverse supply base for telecoms.”

“We understand that in order to reach this ambition, there is more to be done to develop the performance, economics, and security of new RAN solutions so that they become competitive and viable for scale deployments.

Therefore, joint activity will include: investment in the research and development, deployment, and adoption of open network technologies; creating the right market environment to foster and encourage innovation; and international partnerships that bring together learning from across the global supply chain.”