Three’s 3G shutdown should be smoother than its launch

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Three UK’s 3G network was its launchpad, but now the company is pulling the plug with a view to channelling investments and spectrum into newer technologies.

The mobile operator plans to switch off its 3G network by the end of 2024, which makes sense, given that 4G – and increasingly 5G – have already taken over as the mobile technologies of choice; the gap is only likely to widen over the next two and a half years.

Indeed, Three notes that 5G usage exceeded 3G usage just under a year ago, which you would expect, given how much more data 5G users consume, and said the number of 5G devices on its network has increased fourfold this year. It predicts that 5G will account for 35% of data usage by the end of this year.

But while switching off the 3G network is clearly a logical choice, it still marks the end of an era for the UK mobile operator.

Three broke into the UK market via the much-hyped 3G spectrum auction of 2000, at a time when the combined auction spend of £22.5 billion seemed like an insane amount for telcos to part with for frequencies. Times have changed a bit since.

As Three points out in its shutdown announcement, it launched the UK’s first 3G network in spring 2003, although even at the time there were rumblings of mmO2, the company that went on to become O2 and was then still owned by BT, having actually been first to market thanks to a trial network in the Isle of Man. One thing that hasn’t changed in the past two decades is telcos’ deep desire to claim firsts in launching a new generation of mobile technology: it is only three years since Verizon and SK Telecom did battle over the world’s first 5G launch… or at least their marketing teams did.

Three has chosen its words carefully regarding its own 3G launch, presumably mindful of the fact that some of us in the UK have very long memories.

“Three UK launched 3G in the UK on 03.03.03 with the network going live later that month,” it said on Wednesday.

Yup. 3 March was an obvious choice of launch date for Three, but sadly the telco wasn’t actually ready to go. Much PR spin ensued, the telco insisted its launch party wasn’t actually a launch party, and there was not a 3G handset to be seen. However, all was forgiven when the network did go live, although handset availability issues persisted for some time.

Still, that’s all now a distant memory, as the 3G network soon will be too.

But it’s not as simple as flipping the switch in the opposite direction to shut down the network. There are still a few things to be ironed out, namely moving users off the network. Three is naturally implying that this will be no big deal.

“Three expects the trend of customers using 3G only handsets to continue to decline, as faster 4G and 5G devices are introduced the market,” it said. “When customers upgrade their handsets, they will be able to take advantage of being on the UK’s fastest 5G network, as recognised by Ookla.”

Three did not disclose how many of its 9.7 million customers are using 3G-only handsets. However many there are, it’s a pretty safe bet that they are fairly resistant to change; while some will upgrade as part of a normal, if long, handset replacement cycle, there will doubtless be others reluctant to part with the phone they have come to known and love, no matter how much Three pushes the capabilities of its 5G network.

In addition, while Three’s announcement did not mention M2M customers using 3G, it may well have some machines to move to other networks. Neither is an insurmountable problem, but both need to be considered.

“3G kick-started the mobile revolution – and launched Three into the UK 20 years ago – but the future is undoubtedly 5G,” said David Hennessy, Chief Technology Officer at Three UK. It’s hard to argue with at least the latter half of that statement.


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