What does the 3G shutdown mean for the digital divide?

As mobile networks evolve, do those left on the wrong side run the risk of being left behind?

The world of tech is constantly evolving, and mobile network connectivity is no different. From slow 2G mobile internet to superfast 5G speeds, users have to always adapt – and with them, the companies that offer those services.

Supply and demand play a key role in dictating which services to continue and which ones to stop. At Vodafone UK, 3G networks now carry less than 4% of all network data, down from 30% in 2016, according to CCS Insight. It means that many carriers have decided to sunset their 3G services, and many more plan to do so.

The list of network providers cutting back on 3G services is long. In the Netherlands, Vodafone Ziggo shut down its service in February 2020. Deutsche Telekom in Germany did so in June 2021, followed by Telia in Norway that December. KPN in the Netherlands was the most recent European carrier to announce the closure of its 3G service in March 2022, but it will soon be followed by Germany’s Telefonica, which is closing its final 300 3G sites this year.

Closure, closure, closure

2022 is a key year for 3G sunsetting. It marks a liminal moment where a mass of operators will begin shutting down their services. Vodafone will start decommissioning its UK 3G service in 2023, followed in 2024 by BT. Telia in Finland will also stop serving 3G customers that year, while Swisscom and Orange will follow in 2025 and 2028, respectively.

“Bucking an industry trend, Orange will decommission 2G in its home market first, in 2025,” says CCS Insight. “The decision was announced at this year’s MWC; executives explained that the broader reach of its 3G network was a leading reason.”

CCS Insight researchers say that closing slower legacy networks is the correct path forward for an industry looking to improve efficiency in operations when paying large amounts for the latest technology. But CCS Insight add that transition also raises key questions about how to support those who are still using older mobile phones - many of whom see it as a lifeline.

The haves and the have nots

There is a huge risk involved that by serving the cutting-edge customers with their needs for superfast 5G network speeds, those who are less tech-savvy lose out. CCS Insight research has shown that older generations are most likely to be impacted negatively by 3G network closures. Older users own a higher proportion of phones that need to be replaced or upgraded to stay connected.

Although CCS Insight admit the number of simple-to-use phones that are designed especially for use by older people has increased in the last 10 years, they’re often only focused on providing the basic functions required, such as voice calls and text messages. That means many of the functions most beloved by smartphone users aren’t accessible on these devices.

The race toward more tech-advanced solutions has been accelerated by the pandemic when people turned to digital alternatives to services and products they’d ordinarily interact with face-to-face and in person. And seeing 3G services – which are often only serviced by older phones – disappear will mean that people will be forced to upgrade to bridge the digital divide. “We see 3G network shutdowns as a catalyst for a wave of upgrade activity among senior users,” says CCS Insight. “This brings an opportunity for companies to develop a strategy specifically catering to older users obliged to upgrade their devices once 3G disappears over the horizon.”

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