DA rips into plan to ban 2G and 3G phones in South Africa

Democratic Alliance spokesperson on communications Dianne Kohler Barnard has ripped into the ANC government’s plan to sunset South Africa’s 2G and 3G networks.

“Perhaps the Minister should have spoken with the citizens of this country before announcing such a move,” Kohler Barnard stated.

Kohler Barnard said South Africa’s rural-based farmers rely almost exclusively on 2G and 3G devices.

She also said that this is one of the most threatened groups in South Africa.

“It is firstly important to note that 4G and 5G devices are considerably more expensive than 2G and 3G devices,” said Kohler Barnard.

“South Africans who currently use the 2G and 3G networks would see their devices rendered useless. Citizens who cannot afford it would then be forced to spend more money, just to stay connected to a network,” she said.

“The very lives of farmers and farmworkers, who rely on contacting neighbours when under attack, will be endangered.”

Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni published her proposed “Next Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum” policy for public comment on Thursday.

Cabinet approved the policy for publication last Wednesday.

MyBroadband obtained a copy of the approved policy from the minister’s office ahead of formal publication, which contained a timeline for shutting down South Africa’s ageing 2G and 3G networks.

Before that, in June, Ntshavheni had addressed the 2022 World Telecommunication Development Conference, where she announced that South Africa would ban the importation and distribution of 2G devices by end-February 2023.

She explained that the ban would help South Africa shut down its 2G and 3G networks by 2025.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni
Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies

Vodacom had announced in 2019 that it wanted to turn off its 2G network by 2024.

The operator said this would allow it to reuse the radio frequency spectrum 2G consumes to improve its 4G network and bring down data prices.

However, it also said there would always be a “thin 2G layer” for machine-to-machine or Internet-of-Things devices like speed points, water meters, and trackers.

“We will not disconnect those,” Vodacom said at the time.

However, Vodacom said the industry needs a regulatory framework to help it shut down old network technologies.

In 2021, Vodacom called for regulatory intervention to stop cheap 2G-only cellphones being “dumped” in South Africa.

These devices are sold through independent retail chains such as PEP, Ackermans, and Mr Price.

Operators like Vodacom have tried to bring affordable 4G alternatives onto the market, like its Vodacom Vibe handset for R299.

However, the operator no longer appears to sell 4G devices in this price range. Instead, its 4U franchise sells the 2G-only Nokia 105 (2019) for R299. Takealot lists 4G-capable Nokia phones from around R330.

Other network operators have previously told MyBroadband that switching off South Africa’s 2G networks would be no easy task.

Cell C said the prices of 4G and 5G-compatible devices were a significant barrier to switching off older network technologies.

MTN said some of its clients rely heavily on its 2G network for machine-to-machine applications.

Because of this, MTN said it would be easier to shut off its 3G network than 2G.

The table below summarises the timeline to sunset 2G and 3G proposed in the draft policy published today.

Interested parties have 30 working days to provide feedback on the policy.

Deadline 2G 3G
30 June 2023 Prohibit licensing 2G devices
31 December 2023 Prohibit new connections or activation of 2G devices
31 March 2024 Shutdown of 2G services Prohibit licensing 3G devices
30 June 2024 Shutdown of 2G networks
30 September 2024 Prohibit new connections or activation of 3G devices
31 December 2024 Shutdown of 3G services
30 March 2025 Shutdown of 3G network

Kohler Barnard said Vodafone has revealed that about 6 million 2G devices are sold annually in South Africa and that about 14 million of its customers are still using 2G phones.

South Africa is not alone in this, with Kohler Barnard saying that huge numbers of people worldwide still depend on 2G networks.

“The vast majority of brand-new, top-of-the-line phones on the market today have no way to switch off 2G support,” said Kohler Barnard.

“While there are plans to phase out 2G and 3G networks to make more room for 5G capability, this Minister must first find a method by which the vast majority of South African citizens would be able to afford these changes.”

She said it was estimated that tens of thousands of Android phones would stop working once 2G and 3G networks were shut down in South Africa.

“Older devices could stop working altogether, losing the ability to text, make phone calls or connect to the Internet,” Kohler Barnard said.

She said this includes tablets, certain medical alert devices, smartwatches and security systems.

“Within the industry, there are enormous concerns about the expense of changing to more advanced technologies, as well as clients’ reliance on 2G for machine-to-machine applications.”

Kohler Barnard said the public consultation process must be more than “a tick box exercise.”

She also called for a full impact assessment.

“But then it should have been undertaken before this policy was approved,” she said.

Now read: Big questions about 10GB free data for every household in South Africa

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DA rips into plan to ban 2G and 3G phones in South Africa