Saying Goodbye to 2G Connections

So last Saturday was April 1, which as everyone knows is April Fool’s Day. But if you woke up in Singapore and wondered why you could no longer use your mobile phone, it was not down to someone playing a prank. Rather, April 1 was the date selected by Singapore to terminate its 2G GSM network, which began life way back (in technology terms) in 1994. Of course, the three telcos here had all warned their – largely older, lower income – 2G subscribers about the impending shutdown and offered low cost options to upgrade to the 3G and 4G phones used by the vast majority of Singapore’s smartphone tapping, tech-savvy population.

But people with Nokia and Ericsson phones fashionable when Bill Clinton was in the White House were not the only ones needing to know about the 2G cessation. What about companies using 2G SIM cards to connect assets to the network? As Singapore telco StarHub informed its business customers in an FAQ: “You will not be able to communicate using your 2G devices when the 2G network ceases. You will need to upgrade your devices to 3G/4G in order to continue sending data wirelessly.”

The retiring of 2G telecom services, and the consequent impact on industrial users such as early smart meter manufacturers, is of course not limited to Singapore but, rather, a worldwide trend, at least in developed countries. In Australia, Telstra called time on 2G last December 1, while Optus, another operator, shuttered its 2G just yesterday (April 3). In the US, AT&T’s 2G network fizzled out with the last of the fireworks this January 1, while Verizon says its 2G will come to an end in 2019.

Counting down to the end of 2G in Australia.

The reason is the same – to focus resources on 3G and 4G, which all but a small minority of consumers have adopted for their mobile phones, and to prepare for the coming 5G. But still, this evolution does require some remedial action to ensure applications involving communication of asset and machine data do not come to a sudden end along with the 2G signal.

T-Mobile in the US is taking an interesting approach. As well as continuing to support its own nationwide 2G network through 2020, last September it offered AT&T’s IoT customers the opportunity to switch operators and take advantage of free 2G SIM cards and free 2G service (for a few months). The company touts its spectrum-efficient 2G GSM optimization, which allows older GSM devices to work alongside newer 4G LTE devices, and  in its statement announcing the initiative, T-Mobile referenced the disruption caused by the 2G switch-off:

“T-Mobile listens to customers and understands businesses need time to make complicated technology transitions like the move from 2G to other network technologies. Migrating technologies can often be expensive and include deploying skilled repair teams to swap out installed devices for LTE modules, which can cost $50 to $200 per device. Those costs might not be right for every business today, so that’s why T-Mobile will continue to support its nationwide 2G network through 2020, and is giving AT&T’s stranded IoT customers a better path forward.”

Not surprisingly, another segment of the IoT ecosystem impacted by 2G’s demise is that occupied by the communication module suppliers, although for them it’s a clearer opportunity to migrate customers to 3G and 4G modules. Telit, one of the largest suppliers, has launched a 2G Sunset Survival Plan, which includes free SIM cards and several months of free IoT connectivity for customers that make the transition. Meanwhile, Kore Wireless offers a free 2G consultation with a 2G transition specialist and in a recent (March 7) webinar, Life After 2G Sunset, laid out the options for customers and suggested it may be better to skip 3G and migrate straight to 4G modules, given that 3G will inevitably face the same fate as 2G sometime in the next decade.

Of course, this so-called sunset of 2G takes place against a backdrop of vigorous investment in low power, low bandwidth IoT networks, such as Sigfox, LoRa, and NB-IoT, which can fulfil the needs of applications such as remote monitoring and asset tracking that in a previous era would likely be good candidates for 2G. So expect some positive spinoffs in those directions. This ongoing episode should perhaps also make us pause and think about how quickly technology can become obsolete. That revolutionary first iPhone launched just 10 years ago. Guess what? It was a 2G device.