Europe could go alone in waving goodbye to 3G first, claims GSMA

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Europe could wave goodbye to 3G before 2G disappears, the GSMA has claimed, as operators look to refarm existing holdings to feed growing LTE data usage.

The report, by GSMA Intelligence, said the popularity of 2G-based M2M networks across the continent was also a factor, with enterprises keen to stick with the same technology during the life of their contract with an operator.

The trade body said more than 40 percent of operators use 1800MHz spectrum for LTE, with one in three globally having refarmed the frequency for 4G. By the end of last year, more than half of all LTE networks were using refarmed spectrum, a sign that the amount of bandwidth provided by public auction was not enough.

The reasons for 1800MHz being so popular was its legacy use by telcos and near global footprint. The GSMA said operators have an average of 35MHz of spectrum in play in this band.

However, in attempts to shift more of their spectrum towards LTE, there is a split between Europe and the rest of the world. The GSMA noted how operators across Japan, South Korea, the United States, Australia and Singapore had already taken steps to decommission their 2G networks. These LTE pioneer markets have been facing the most pressure from customers, because of the longevity of their 4G networks.

Despite this shift to LTE, 2G still accounted for 53 percent of connections worldwide last year, compared to 33 percent for 3G. By 2020, the GSMA predicted 15 percent of connections excluding cellular IoT would still be on 2G networks in Europe, compared to only five percent in the US.

According to an operator survey, more than 50 percent said 3G would be shut down before 2G. Only 25 percent said 2G would be replaced by 3G or LTE in the near future. Sixty percent said as 4G growth sped up, 3G would become obsolete and quickly vanish.

Among the operators who have signalled an end to their 3G networks are Telenor Norway and T-Mobile Czech Republic.

M2M was cited as the most common reason for keeping 2G networks running, according to two thirds of respondents. The GSMA said other issues included long replacement cycles for feature phones, the extensive voice coverage 2G offers and roaming agreements.

The report said: "Although 4G coverage in Europe is not yet sufficient to support 4G-only devices, there is a growing preference for dual-mode 2G/4G devices in the region. This in turn could mean that operators opt to migrate 3G applications onto 4G networks and keep the 2G network to support voice and basic handsets."