South Africa’s 2G and 3G shutdown plans hit a snag

South Africa will hopefully know more about the government’s intention to shut down 2G and 3G networks in the country in about four months, strongly suggesting that former communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s deadlines will not be met.

During his department’s budget vote speech in Parliament on 17 May 2023, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Mondli Gungubele said the final next-generation spectrum policy would only be announced in September 2023.

If that happens as promised, it will come a year after former communications minister Khumbodzu Ntshavheni published a draft of the policy that included a rather ambitious timeline for sunsetting the legacy network technologies.

Ntshavheni’s first proposed deadlines were for the banning of licencing 2G and 3G devices by June 2023 and March 2024, respectively. The first of those deadlines is coming up in June.

After that, 2G networks would have been scheduled for shutdown in June 2024, followed by 3G networks in March 2025.

The plan also included deadlines for prohibiting new connections and activations of 2G and 3G devices and the ultimate shutdown of these legacy services.

The department initially gave stakeholders until October 2022 to comment on the policy and timelines, which are set out in the table below.

Deadline 2G 3G
30 June 2023 Prohibit licensing 2G devices
30 September 2023 Final next-generation spectrum policy
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 networks
The deadline marked in amber can’t be met under the new plan. The deadline marked in italics was newly announced by Mondli Gungubele in May.

Although the department has not outright stated the draft plan is no longer applicable, the fact that at least one of the deadlines will already have passed by the time the final policy is published strongly suggests this to be the case.

Furthermore, considering the planned finalization date for the policy was only 11 months after the comment deadline, it appears the matter is more complex than the government had anticipated.

Likely, the timelines have also been impacted by President Cyril Ramaphosa reshuffling Ntshavheni and Gungubele, as the latter has had to familiarise himself with the technical and industry issues surrounding 2G and 3G shutdown.

At least one major mobile network operator — MTN — said the department was still engaging over the plan in May 2023.

MTN South Africa’s chief of sustainability and corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, told MyBroadband that there had been no further communication from the department about the roadmap but that engagements with the department were ongoing.

O’Sullivan emphasized it was critical that user devices be migrated from 2G and 3G before their respective shutdowns.

“Shutting down a legacy technology requires pre-planning, and hence MTN is driving milestones to reduce demand for the legacy technologies,” O’Sullivan said.

“Our milestone and migration plans to newer technologies will ensure that our customers are treated fairly and can continue to access the services they need with minimal disruption.:

“MTN, as part of its process, will engage with its customers to highlight the benefits of newer technologies.”

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA corporate affairs chief

2G and 3G are outdated network technologies that take up valuable radio frequency spectrum that could be used for more efficient and faster connectivity.

Modernizing mobile networks will enable operators to provide better and more reliable coverage across the country.

It could also make mobile data prices cheaper in the long run, as the bandwidth available for 4G and 5G would be greatly increased.

However, 2G and 3G devices are still widely used in South Africa.

The former is still particularly popular in cost-effective Internet-of-Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) devices.

While the latter has largely been superseded by 4G in most populated areas, many South Africans have handsets that only support 3G. Various retailers also continue selling these handsets cheaply.

Such 3G handsets typically range between R200 and R400, whereas we could not find a 4G-capable phone selling for less than R799 at the time of publication.

MTN and Telkom clash complicates matters

While mobile networks agree that South Africa should sunset 2G and 3G networks, MTN and Telkom are at loggerheads over which should be first out the door.

In contrast to what the government had proposed with its draft timeline, MTN wants 3G to be shut down first and a layer of 2G connectivity to be left behind for a while.

It argues that migrating all the country’s legacy 2G devices, which are used for critical applications like banking and security, will take longer than migrating all 3G device users to 4G.

Telkom previously told MyBroadband it has a big gripe with this, primarily because most of its voice traffic is transmitted over its 3G network.

On the flip side, a 2G shutdown will have a minimal impact on its network.

“As a data-led network, we have already taken steps to phase out 2G. As it stands, less than 1% of our traffic is carried on 2G,” Telkom told MyBroadband.

Cell C said it would review the policy once it is finally published.

“The telco industry has a significant number of customers, both prepaid and post-paid, that would be impacted. Cell C prefers an industry-led 2G-3G sunsetting,” the operator said.

Vodacom  did not respond by the time of publication.

Now read: Former Telkom CEO wants to buy large slice of company

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South Africa’s 2G and 3G shutdown plans hit a snag