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2G shutdown: When is it coming and what will be the impact?

The roll-out of the new 5G mobile communications standard is making ever greater progress in Germany. In cooperation with some mobile communications companies, the EU has already launched a flagship initiative to develop a sixth generation of mobile communications.

The spread of such new, faster standards requires free frequencies. For this reason, the old technologies must gradually give way. The shutdown of 3G is already in full swing in Germany and has even been completed in many places, while other countries are retiring GSM, the second generation of mobile communications. We explain the benefits of such a 2G switch-off, the consequences for residential and industrial customers, and also whether and when it can be expected in Germany. 

What are the benefits of 2G today? 

Almost 100% of the German population is covered by 2G. The second mobile communications standard is still frequently the basis for telephony, SMS and simple M2M communications. One of the reasons for this is that in many parts of Germany, even in some major cities, the GSM network still has to be used because there is insufficient coverage with the faster standards. 

In addition, GSM was optimized for the transmission of voice and still performs better than 3G in this application area. The third generation of mobile communications is not ideal for audio transmission, nor for data transmission, and is therefore even called a misstep by some. For this reason, network operators were the first to shut down 3G as soon as LTE expansion had progressed far enough. In industrial applications, for example, traffic lights, alarm systems, and cars often still communicate via the old 2G mobile communications standard.

The current shutdown of 3G is leading to an additional fallback to 2G and thus to even greater use of the GSM network than was observed a few years ago. A closer observation thus reveals that even though 2G may have apparently lost importance, the obsolete mobile communications standard is still used far more frequently in Germany than it appears at first glance. 

What would be the positive and negative consequences of a 2G switch-off? 

The main advantage of switching off old mobile communications standards is that the respective frequencies would be freed up for new technologies. For example, the frequency ranges previously allocated to GSM could be used for 5G in the future. 

In addition, the operation of 2G requires significantly more energy compared to newer technologies: According to the company Swisscom, the transmission of one megabyte with 2G requires 5,400 watts, while a transmission of the same amount of data with modern radio technologies only requires about 0.2 watts. Together with the maintenance costs of the infrastructure, this increased energy consumption leads to rising maintenance costs for 2G.

A combined 2G and 3G switch-off in Germany would currently mean that many mobile devices in use in both the private and industrial sectors would have to be replaced.  Older cell phones, for example, would no longer be able to make calls without GSM and UMTS connections. Even though these cell phones are often even LTE-capable in principle, they remain dependent on the two older standards to transmit voice. This is because Voice over LTE (VoLTE), a method for transmitting audio files via the LTE network, has only been able to come up with performance that can rival transmission via 2G for a few years. Many smartphone models in the lower price range or already several years old therefore do not (yet) support this technology. The same phenomenon is also frequently observed in industrial use cases.  

Even independent of the technical requirements that the end devices must bring with them, there is another aspect that would make a 2G switch-off problematic at this point: LTE and 5G networks must be available nationwide for a smooth rollback of the old mobile communications standard. Unfortunately, the existing mobile communications infrastructure cannot yet reliably guarantee such coverage, especially in rural areas of Germany. 

When can a shutdown of the 2G network be expected in Germany? 

In the past, there have been several rumors about an imminent shutdown of the GSM network. In some other countries, such as Switzerland or the Netherlands, the shutdown is already in full swing. In Germany, however, an immediate changeover of all 2G-dependent devices is not necessary: All network operators stated in response to inquiries from various online magazines that they currently have no plans to shut down. Vodafone even upgraded its GSM network a few years ago.  

Nevertheless, it is possible that the operators will soon start thinning out the frequency bands, as has also been the case with 3G for several years. This would result in stronger extraneous signals in the GSM bands, which would probably weaken audio quality for telephony somewhat. Combined with the fallback resulting from the 3G shutdown, there could even be some congestion on the 2G network. A serious discussion about switch-off plans in Germany is expected by some experts in the middle of the decade. 

Even if the functionality of 2G-dependent devices is not currently in immediate danger, we advise against still relying on GSM when installing new mobile communications applications. It is recommended to rely on LTE or 5G instead. Operators should also consider upgrading existing 2G applications when the opportunity arises.