Shutting down South Africa’s 2G networks to make way for newer technology is no small task as many businesses with legacy machine-to-machine and Internet of Things systems rely on it.
However, because of how starved they are for spectrum, Vodacom and MTN have told MyBroadband that they are looking at ways to turn off old 2G and 3G networks to focus on 4G and 5G technologies.
Radio frequency spectrum is raw capacity for the wireless portion of a cellular network that connects mobile devices to base stations.
Networks have explained that whatever additional spectrum they can get their hands on will allow them to improve 4G and 5G coverage and drive down mobile data prices in South Africa.
“In the absence of new spectrum, and having to use existing spectrum for legacy 2G technology, operators such as Vodacom need to build more base stations to cope with the continued growth in data traffic,” Vodacom stated.
“This was further accelerated by the COVID pandemic.”
A long-awaited spectrum auction managed by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is currently stalled due to legal action from Telkom and MTN.
ICASA has also warned that it does not intend to extend temporary radio frequency spectrum licences that were granted to network operators as part of the disaster regulations, issued in response to the National State of Disaster declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This shortage of spectrum, together with the constantly increasing demand on their networks, put South Africa’s mobile operators in a position where they have to build more base stations in areas where they already have coverage to extend their network capacity.
“These factors are significant barriers to further reducing mobile data prices in the country,” said Vodacom.
“Operators such as Vodacom have not received any new spectrum in South Africa in over 15 years. In a spectrum constrained environment, valuable spectrum still needs to be used for legacy technologies such as 2G and cannot be ‘re-farmed’ for newer, more efficient technologies such as 4G.”
For this reason Vodacom and MTN are looking at ways to decrease South Africans’ reliance on older cellular technologies like 2G and 3G networks.
“2G technology, which is over 27 years old, was originally designed to enable mobile voice calls. It is not capable of providing mobile broadband services, which are critical to extending digital inclusion,” Vodacom said.
“While Vodacom would like to reduce the existing spectrum resources used to sustain the current 2G network, this will not be done without consideration for the millions of consumers, M2M (machine to machine) and IoT (Internet of Things) customers who rely on the 2G network due to the technology limitations of their current devices.”
Vodacom said that it has no immediate plans to turn off the 2G network for M2M and IoT customers specifically, as these devices are often deeply embedded in other infrastructure such as vehicles, utility plants, hospitals, and other mission critical infrastructure.
“We are working together with our M2M and IoT customers to provide guidance on the medium term shutdown of the 2G network, which will provide them with sufficient time to upgrade their M2M and IoT modules to more efficient 4G technologies before the 2G network is entirely shutdown,” Vodacom told MyBroadband.
Where Vodacom would like to implement a quicker shutdown is for 2G voice services, which it said use significant existing spectrum resources inefficiently.
To help clients migrate off of their existing 2G-only devices, Vodacom said it is supporting the adoption of 4G devices for lower income customers. It will encourage adoption through the following initiatives:
- Low cost 4G smart feature phones, such as the Vodacom Vibe which retails for R279
- Increased device subsidies
- Monthly prepaid financing options for these devices to further increase affordability
Vodacom previously told MyBroadband that it wants to switch off its 2G network by 2024.
“Many operators across both developed and developing countries have already shutdown their legacy 2G networks. This has been made possible by intervention from their national regulatory bodies and governments,” Vodacom stated.
“The shutting down of the 2G network for consumers and thinning out of spectrum resources currently being used for 2G M2M and IoT services is crucial in ensuring South Africa accelerates digital inclusion and is able to realise its 4IR ambitions.”
Vodacom said new technologies such as 4G provide a better voice experience, are better suited to cope with the explosive growth in data traffic through the more efficient use of spectrum, enable the cost effective extension of mobile broadband coverage across the country, including rural communities, and are also more energy efficient.
MTN agreed with Vodacom that the spectrum auction needs to happen is quickly as possible, and said that it is also expects to eventually switch off its 2G network.
However, it will be several years yet before MTN switches off its 2G network.
“Therefore MTN is considering a 3G turnoff, prior to 2G turnoff in the future,” the operator said.
“Currently, LTE/4G is MTN’s dominant mobile technology which we expect continue to grow as capable handsets become even more prevalent in the market.”