The 3G Shutdown: A Historical Account of the Networks and the Looming Sunset of 3G

The Internet of Things (IoT) is facing an existential crisis. By January 1, 2023, millions of wireless devices will cease communicating when the 2G and 3G network shutdown ensues.

Every major US carrier will stop supporting 2G and 3G cellular networks. 

In addition to smartphones and tablets, this abrupt shift will directly impact every single wireless device that relies on legacy cellular bandwidth – including the millions of routers powering traffic lights, surveillance cameras, solar monitoring systems, smart TVs, and the general IoT ecosystem.

This guide explains why this shift is happening. It also outlines what steps solar asset managers and PV component manufacturers must take before the 3G sunset goes into effect.

What Is the 3G Network Shutdown?

Within the past year, AT&T, US Cellular, Verizon, and Sprint (now owned by T-Mobile) all independently announced that they would shut down the cellular infrastructure required to support increasingly outdated protocols, including:

  • Global System for Mobiles (GSM), is the primary technology that lets SIM-enabled smart phones wirelessly link to telecom networks. GSM is the global standard everywhere outside the United States (except for AT&T and T-Mobile).[i] This is often referred to as “2G,” but GSM also supports 3G data sharing.
  • Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) is the wireless communication technology used by Verizon, US cellular, and Sprint to power their networks. CDMA is used for devices (i.e. routers) that may not be equipped with SIM cards – including sensors and receives frequently used in solar PV systems. CDMA is often referred to as “3G.”

In place of GSM and CDMA, the major carriers will devote more resources to newer telecom standards, including:

  • Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the global standard for wireless 4G communications. Under ideal conditions, LTE can deliver upload speeds of 50Mbps and download speeds of 100Mbps.[ii]However, most LTE-enabled smart phones only serve data over 4G connections. Calls and text messaging (SMS) are normally done over 2G or 3G cellular, unless you use third-party apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, or Skype.
  • Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which is a separate 4G standard that allows users to search, call, and SMS exclusively using their data plans instead of consuming traditional cellular network minutes.

Why Are There Different Cellular Technologies (and Why Do They Matter)?

Like all technologies, mobile networks constantly improve over time as new innovations and breakthroughs emerge. However, these networks also evolve in generational leaps – with the upcoming 3G sunset designed to phase out the third generation.

Here’s a brief timeline of this evolution.

First Generation (1G)

1G was first launched in 1979 by Japan’s largest carrier, Nippon Telegraph, and Telephone (NTT). This generation had very limited coverage and poor-quality audio. Worse still, 1G offered zero encryption, allowing anyone with a scanner to eavesdrop on conversations.[iii]

Second Generation (2G)

2G (a.k.a. GSM) was introduced in 1991 with improved call clarity and encryption. The technology also made it possible to send SMS and media for the first time. However, 2G delivered slow performance, which only became worse due to surging consumer demand for cellular phones.

Third Generation (3G)

Developed by NTT and DoCoMo in 2001, 3G introduced a lot of breakthroughs in telecommunications, including packet-switching, which allows for larger file transfers and better sound quality. The newer CDMA standard also boasted data delivery speeds that were 4 times faster than 2G cellular.

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 helped to accelerate 3G adoption. However, the world’s first commercially successful smartphone also lay the groundwork for the cellular standard’s eventual demise. Although 3G was faster than previous generations, it wasn’t equipped to handle high-definition multimedia – especially when streaming on-demand content from services like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu on a phone or tablet.

Fourth Generation (4G)

First introduced in 2009, 4G has since become the default telecom standard worldwide due to its ability to send large amounts of data very quickly. It might have become the default sooner. But whereas migrating from 2G to 3G involves swapping out a SIM card, upgrading to 4G requires buying an entirely new LTE-enabled phone. In fact, anyone still using 2G or 3G devices will have to replace their own smartphones before the sunset goes into effect.

But the problem isn’t limited to handheld devices. The 3G sunset extends to the entire IoT – potentially impacting every wireless device in the country that relies on older cellular protocols.

Why Do Carriers Shut down Telecom Networks?

There are many compelling reasons why the industry supports introducing newer standards, including improved speed, security, and cost. Consumer demand is another major factor, with phone manufacturers and telecom carriers constantly looking to satisfy the public’s appetite for faster data transfers and higher quality streaming. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your favorite Netflix series suddenly buffer during the climax of a show.  

However, none of these reasons explain why carriers shut down older networks completely. After all, why not just leave them in place and provide wider coverage for more users?

The main reason is bandwidth. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) only auctions off a limited range of the broadband spectrum to telecom carriers. And these carriers must repurpose whatever bandwidth they have to support newer protocols as they emerge. 

But even if there were enough bandwidth, providing nationwide 3G, 4G, and 5G coverage simultaneously would require designing all new towers, routers, and devices to be backward compatible (in perpetuity). Aside from the sheer cost involved, legacy support for outdated protocols also introduces security vulnerabilities. If 1G was still supported anyone could listen to your phone calls with a scanner.

When Will 3G Shut down?

Every major US carrier has announced its own respective 2G and 3G network shutdown schedules:

  • AT&T has already shut down its GSM network. And it plans to follow suit with 3G in February 2022.
  • T-Mobile will discontinue 3G in April 2022, with 2G losing support in December of that same year. 
  • Sprint and Boost customers on T-Mobile’s network will lose 3G connectivity in January 2022.
  • Verizon will finally shut down its 3G network in December 2022.

By New Year’s Day 2023, no major carrier in the US will support the 3G standard or earlier.

What Devices Will Be Affected by the 3G Sunset?

For most users, loss of mobile support will be the first and most visible sign of the 3G network shutdown. But smartphones aren’t the only wireless devices that rely on cellular connectivity. This huge list also includes:

  • Home security systems and alarms
  • Medical devices and monitoring technologies
  • Solar revenue grade meters (RGM) and smart meters 
  • Solar monitoring systems and edge sensors
  • Smart fridges, TVs, and other home appliances
  • Electric vehicles and fleet management systems

Of the 80+ million Internet-connected devices that still rely on 3G cellular technology, RCR Wireless News points out that most are not ones that can be upgraded by swapping out SIM cards.[iv] 

Instead, every individual sensor and receiver must be replaced with newer router technology that supports the 4G standard or higher. These replacements must all happen before each carrier’s sunset deadline to avoid disruptions in connectivity. 

The actual impact of not migrating to 4G depends on the device in question:

  • On one end of the spectrum is the frustration you might feel when your smart TV can’t connect to the Internet. We’re very fortunate the 3G sunset didn’t happen in 2020 when everyone was stuck at home.  
  • At the other end of the spectrum are the serious risks posed when traffic management systems can no longer send and receive real-time data. With no more coordination among lights and signals, collisions would skyrocket – resulting in injury and death. 

With respect to solar power, residential customers might forfeit hundreds of dollars if their inverters no longer share production data or if their monitoring software fails to detect a performance dip. Those lost savings merely compound as the size of the PV installation grows. If you manage an entire portfolio of distributed solar assets, for example, you likely depend on hundreds or thousands of CDMA-enabled sensors and receivers to power the revenue grade meters in your solar portfolio. One day next year, every single one of those devices will suddenly stop sending and receiving data – all at once. 

The last (and still incomplete) 2G sunset was relatively easy. Moving America off the 3G standard will be far more challenging.

Managing the Migration from 3G

Exchanging cell phones is straightforward. You simply walk into a local mobile shop and buy a newer phone that supports the 4G standard. Swapping out the millions of sensors and receivers powering other “smart” devices will be much harder. 

And here’s why.

The average user has no idea where the wireless router exists in their smart TV – let alone how to access or replace it. Should they call the original manufacturer or a service technician? And will the latter be familiar with the router technology specific to that television?

The above dance must play out with every connected smart device dependent on 3G technology or older. This includes the millions of CDMA-enabled revenue grade meters, inverters, and monitoring solutions used to optimize solar power production and storage across the country. 

What about the Future of Cellular Networks?

The 3G network shutdown is fast approaching. But there will be future network sunsets as carriers make way for newer generations of cellular technology. At the moment, two of the most promising protocols are LTE Advanced and 5G.

Generation 4.5 (LTE Advanced)

Also known as LTE-A, this cellular standard is 2 to 3 times faster than 4G, with higher stability and less overall buffering.[v] LTE Advanced accomplishes this by using multiple antennas that can manage multiple signals – versus the 1:1 pairing normally done with 4G technology. 

LTE Advanced is a significant improvement over 4G. But because it’s not a generational leap, some industry insiders refer to the standard as 4.5G. Verizon already offers LTE-A to its customers – as does AT&T, which calls its own network 5Ge.

Fifth Generation (5G)

5G is 100 times faster than 4G, with data transfers of 20GB per second. Lifewire reports that this speed is the difference between downloading a 3GB movie in 35 seconds versus the 40 minutes required over a traditional 4G connection.[vi] And according to Medium, 5G receivers can simultaneously connect to 1 million devices in a 0.38 sq. mi. radius, allowing it to bear far higher data loads than previous cellular technologies.[vii]

Even better, 5G has a latency rate under 1 ms, which is how long it takes to send digital data from Point A to Point B. This is 250 times faster than humans can react to visual stimuli, which makes it possible to communicate over vast distances with virtually zero perceptible lag. This type of speed would allow a 5G-enabled traffic system to manage an entire city of autonomous vehicles – with less congestion and zero collisions.

5G technology is already here, with most carriers offering some type of support in their mobile plans. However, the technology’s true potential will likely become clearer as more devices connect to this newer standard. Multimedia consumption will certainly drive much of this adoption. But 5G is more broadly about sharing data faster and more securely to support the growing IoT ecosystem in a world with more smart devices and gadgets.

Conclusion

After many delays, the 3G network shutdown is finally happening – with tens of millions of connected devices losing connectivity in a single calendar year. This sudden shift has huge implications for society as consumers, businesses, and device manufacturers scramble to adjust to this new normal. 

If you have specific questions about upgrading any of the 2G- or 3G-dependent routers in the edge devices you manufacture or solar asset portfolios you manage, schedule a free consultation with us today.


[i] https://help.backmarket.com/hc/en-us/articles/360013348140-What-s-the-difference-between-CDMA-and-GSM-

[ii] Lifewire reports that these speeds are closer to 15Mbps and 30Mbps respectively for the average telecom subscriber – https://www.lifewire.com/how-fast-is-4g-wireless-service-577566

[iii] https://www.brainbridge.be/en/blog/1g-5g-brief-history-evolution-mobile-standards

[iv] https://www.rcrwireless.com/20190410/5g/the-3g-network-sunset-and-its-implications-for-iot

[v] https://www.4g.co.uk/4g-lte-advanced/


[vi] https://www.lifewire.com/5g-speed-4180992

[vii] https://medium.com/clx-forum/1-million-iot-devices-per-square-km-are-we-ready-for-the-5g-transformation-5d2ba416a984