Are you prepared for the UK’s 3G network to be switched off?

Vodafone plans to complete its 3G switch-off by the end of next year  (Vodafone)
Vodafone plans to complete its 3G switch-off by the end of next year (Vodafone)

With Vodafone’s shutdown of its 3G networks set to ramp up next month, the Digital Poverty Alliance has warned that the move risks severely impacting those with older devices.

While the Government hasn’t mandated the end of 2G and 3G until 2033, networks have already started this process with the latter. Vodafone switched off its service in Plymouth and Basingstoke in February. The two locations were specifically chosen because of improvements to 4G over the last 18 months, leading to 99 per cent coverage, the network said.

But coverage isn’t the same thing as compatible technology, as campaigners pointed out. “Older and basic devices do not have 4G capabilities, so individuals who can only get online using a basic device will fall into digital poverty,” the Digital Poverty Alliance said.

“Switching off 3G will have an adverse effect on the mission to help more people access the digital world.”

As a technology, 3G is 20 years old and the first 4G network was launched by EE more than a decade ago. As such, any phone purchased in the last decade is unlikely to have any issues with 3G’s wind-up.

Earlier this year, a survey from USwitch suggested that a narrow majority of Brits (51 per cent) were unaware that the network was being wound down.

But while 25 per cent of respondents to USwitch’s survey claimed they used 3G regularly, Ian Fogg, vice-president of analysis at network analysts Opensignal, said that the vast majority of people will be unaffected.

“3G isn’t really a major technology in the UK for getting coverage,” he told the Standard. “4G is ubiquitous. It’s very rare with a modern phone for someone to have a 3G signal, but not a 4G signal — incredibly rare.

“There’ll be a small number of people who might have a very old 4G phone that can’t do voice over LTE (Long Term Evolution). For those people, when 3G is switched off, their phone will fall back on 2G to make voice calls.

“3G is a technology that is old, inefficient, and it isn’t adding a lot of value to anyone in the UK,” he continued. And there’s good reason to move on: ending 3G, he explained, frees up capacity for faster, more useful 4G and 5G technology.

One reason why Fogg predicts few issues from the end of 3G is that, unlike in the US where the transition has proved bumpy, 2G is being left untouched for now. That means that feature phones and business IoT devices that only support 2G will continue to function.

“3G falls between stools,” Fogg said. “It’s not widely used by a lot of people, like 2G still is, and it’s nowhere near as efficient as 4G or 5G.”

The small minority affected are likely to have a while to act. Although the wind-down for Vodafone (and the networks that share its service, such as VOXI and Talkmobile) has already begun, the network has said that it aims to complete the switch-off by the end of 2024.

Three has the same timescale in mind, though this shutdown might affect a few more people, as it doesn’t have a 2G service to fall back on. That also goes for Smarty and iD Mobile, which share the network.

In 2024, EE (and therefore Plusnet and BT Mobile) will also begin winding down its services. This will leave only O2 and the timescale of its smaller networks (for example, Giffgaff, Sky, Tesco and, now, Virgin Media) undeclared.

For those needing to upgrade, be sure to consult our list of the best mobile phones. But if you’re feeling the pinch and worrying about the cost, Ofcom recommends telling your provider. “They might be able to offer additional support and help with identifying affordable options,” the regulator suggested.