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2G Switch-off: When it is coming and what impact it will have?

The expansion of the new mobile communications standard 5G continues to make significant progress in Germany. The EU, in collaboration with several mobile companies, has already launched a flagship initiative for the development of the sixth generation of mobile communications. The spreading of such new, faster standards requires free frequencies. For this reason, the old technologies must be gradually replaced. The switch-off of the 3G technology is already in full swing in Germany and has even been completely achieved in many locations, while other countries are sending GSM, the second generation of mobile communications, into retirement. We explain the advantages of the 2G switch-off, what are the consequences for private and industry customers, and also whether and when it can be expected in Germany.

The expansion of the new mobile communications standard 5G continues to make significant progress in Germany. The EU, in collaboration with several mobile companies, has already launched a flagship initiative for the development of the sixth generation of mobile communications. The spreading of such new, faster standards requires free frequencies. For this reason, the old technologies must be gradually replaced. The switch-off of the 3G technology is already in full swing in Germany and has even been completely achieved in many locations, while other countries are sending GSM, the second generation of mobile communications, into retirement. We explain the advantages of the 2G switch-off, what are the consequences for private and industry customers, and also whether and when it can be expected in Germany.

For what is 2G still used 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, including in several major cities, the GSM network was still in use because there was an insufficient coverage with the faster standards.

Moreover, GSM was optimized for the voice transmission and still performs better than 3G when it comes to such applications. The third generation of mobile communications is not ideal for audio transmission, nor for data transmission, and it has even been called a faux pas because of this. For this reason, the network operators were the first to switch off the 3G, as soon as the LTE expansion had progressed far enough. When it comes to industrial applications, for example, traffic lights, alarm systems, and cars often still communicate through the old mobile communications standard, 2G.

The current 3G switch-off has led to an additional fallback on 2G, and thus, to an even greater use of the GSM network, in comparison to how things stood a few years ago. Therefore, a closer observation reveals that even though 2G may have lost its importance apparently, the outdated mobile communications standard is still used in Germany, far more frequently than it would seem so at first glance.

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

The main advantage of switching off the old mobile communication standard is that the respective frequencies will become available for new technologies. For instance, the frequency ranges, which were previously assigned to GSM, could be used in the future for 5G.

In addition, the operation of 2G requires significantly more energy, in comparison to newer technologies: according to Swisscom, the transmission of one megabyte via 2G requires 5,400 watts, while a transmission of the same data volume via modern wireless technologies requires only about 0,2 watts. Together with the infrastructure maintenance cost, this increased energy consumption leads to increasing maintenance costs for 2G.

A combined 2G and 3G switch-off in Germany would currently lead to many mobile devices, which are currently used in both the private and industrial sectors, having to be replaced. Old mobile phones, for examples, would no longer be able to make calls without GSM and UMTS connections. In principle, even though these mobile phones are often even LTE-capable, they remain dependent on the two older standards when it comes to the transmission of voice. This is because Voice over LTE (VoLTE), a method for transmitting audio files over the LTE network, has only managed to match the performance of the 2G transmission for a few years now. Many smartphone models, which belong to the lower price range or are already several years old, do not (yet) support this technology. The same phenomenon is also often noticeable when it comes to industrial application scenarios.

Leaving aside the technical prerequisites, which end devices must meet, there is another aspect that would make a 2G switch-off problematic at this point: for a smooth decommissioning of the old mobile communications standards, LTE and 5G networks must be available nationwide. In rural areas of Germany in particular, the current mobile communications infrastructure unfortunately cannot yet reliably guarantee such coverage.

When can we expect the 2G network to be switched off in Germany?

In the past, there were several rumors about an imminent shutdown of the GSM network. In several other states, such as Switzerland or The Netherlands, the switch-off is already in full swing. However, in Germany, an immediate upgrade of current 2G-dependent devices is not necessary: all network operators stated that they currently had no plans to switch off the network, in response to inquiries from various online magazines. Several years ago, Vodafone even upgraded its GSM network.

Nevertheless, it is possible that operators will soon start thinning out the frequency bands, as it happened with 3G several years ago. This might lead to stronger external signals in the GSM bands, which would probably weaken the audio quality for telephony to some extent. Combined with the fallback, resulting from the 3G switch-off, in some cases it might happen that the 2G network will suffer from overloading. A serious discussion with regard to 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 threatened, we do not recommend for users to still rely on GSM when installing new mobile applications. Instead, it is recommended to rely on LTE or 5G. Operators should also consider the upgrade of existent 2G applications, as soon as the opportunity arises.

Are you planning to install new devices for mobile communications or would you like to upgrade the existent infrastructure to new standards? Our mobile network testers can be of help! Feel free to visit our online shop, write us an e-mail in case you have further questions, or call us at +49 40 35 73 20 65!