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Vodafone to Switch Off 3G Network from 2023

Mobile operator Vodafone will retire its “legacy” 3G data network from next year in order to free up radio spectrum to boost its 4G and 5G networks. However, the switch-off means that some customers will need to upgrade their phones.

Vodafone’s 3G mobile network was initially launched in November 2004 to provide mobile broadband. It’s since been outpaced by the faster 4G network and by Vodafone’s growing 5G infrastructure. Today less than 4% of the data used by Vodafone customers is carried on its 3G network. As recently as 2016, that figure was 30%.

“3G has connected so many customers over the last 17 years, but the future is 4G and 5G,” said Vodafone UK chief executive Ahmed Essam. 

The radio spectrum bands currently devoted to 3G will be repurposed to enhance the speeds, reliability, and coverage of Vodafone’s 4G and 5G networks. It’s a shift the network has already made in Germany and Italy.

Retiring its 3G network is also part of Vodafone’s push to reach net-zero emissions in the UK by 2027. The operator notes that 5G networks are “more than ten times as energy efficient” as older 3G equipment.

“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,” Essam said.

However, the mobile provider concedes that hundreds of thousands of its 18 million mobile customers still use 3G-only phones, particularly older users who haven’t upgraded to smartphones. Those customers will need to purchase new handsets before the end of 2023 to continue accessing mobile data. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck on Vodafone’s 2G network, which only handles calls.

Vodafone estimates that across all the UK’s mobile networks around two million people have 3G-only phones. With EE to retire its own 3G network on the same timeline as Vodafone, hundreds of thousands of people will need to upgrade their phones over the next two years.

Furthermore, around 2.2% of the UK—including parts of Cornwall, rural Scotland and north Norfolk—only have 3G coverage. Many of those areas will be reached by the Shared Rural Network (SRN), through which mobile operators will share infrastructure to to push 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass by the end of 2025. Until then, 2G coverage will remain, providing support for voice calls

But Vodafone promises that “no one will be left behind” by the shift to 4G and 5G.

“We start communicating to customers about this today,” said Essam. “Our goal is for everyone to stay connected, and we will be doing everything we can to make sure that is the case.”

That includes a year-long awareness campaign to notify customers of the impending shift from 3G. The company will also encourage tech-savvy younger customers to “check in” with family and friends to see if they need to upgrade their devices.

“There are people who aren’t confident with technology,” said Essam. “We want to ensure that everyone is getting the help that they need.”

As part of the campaign, Vodafone will partner with the Good Things Foundation, which promotes digital inclusion across all socioeconomic groups. Another partnership with an organisation focusing on older consumers will be announced in the coming weeks.

Competitors O2 and Three have yet to announce concrete plans to switch off their 3G networks. However, in December they, along with Vodafone and EE, agreed a deal with the government to switch off all 2G and 3G networks by 2033.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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