South Africa’s 2G and 3G switch-off — what it means for mobile data speeds

South Africa is set to completely switch off its 2G and 3G networks by 31 December 2027, and Telkom believes it could lead to congestion on the country’s 4G and 5G networks.

However, it said this would be manageable with additional spectrum allocation, densification of infrastructure, and optimisation measures.

On the other hand, MTN SA doesn’t anticipate congestion due to the migration, but it says this could happen in the future as data usage in South Africa increases.

“MTN does not foresee an increase in network congestion as a result of the migration from 2G and 3G technologies to 4G and 5G technologies,” it said.

“This is because 4G and 5G technologies are more spectrally efficient than legacy 2G and 3G networks.”

“As the migration continues, MTN will optimise our network by re-farming spectrum previously assigned to these older technologies to the newer 4G/5G networks,” MTN SA added.

However, it does see the need for additional spectrum in future to manage increased data reliance.

“As consumer reliance on data increases, and the quantity of traffic on the network grows, operators will need additional spectrum to accommodate the growth in data and avoid congestion,” said MTN SA.

“To this end, MTN is supportive of [Icasa’s] initiative of a second phase spectrum licencing process.”

Mondli Gungubele, South African Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies

On the other hand, Telkom told MyBroadband that some congestion could occur, but added that there were several ways to manage it.

“Over time, as more people migrate from legacy 2G and 3G devices to 4G and 5G, congestion may occur due to high user demand in particular areas,” it said.

“These challenges can be addressed through spectrum allocation, densification of infrastructure, and optimisation measures to maintain good experience.”

It added that 2G data traffic on its network makes up less than 0.2% of all traffic.

“Telkom built a data network from the onset, and we have since decommissioned 2G,” said Telkom

“All our 2G data traffic is carried on the roaming network and it makes up less than 0.2% of total data traffic.”

Vodacom told MyBroadband that while the re-farming of spectrum can help operators manage congestion on their 4G and 5G networks, the growth in demand can exceed the pace at which spectrum becomes available.

“For this reason, following a successful 2022 IMT spectrum auction, ICASA and the DCDT need to ensure that the pace of making IMT spectrum available to current mobile operators (on reasonable, transparent and fair terms) is maintained,” it said.

“Vodacom is working with a variety of stakeholders (including government) to ensure that the impacts (including potential congestion) of this transition on consumers is minimised.”

South Africa’s Department of Communications and Digital Technologies recently extended the deadline for shutting down South Africa’s 2G and 3G networks by two years.

This came after the country had missed several of the plan’s deadlines.

It had previously planned to shut down the 2G network by June 2024 and the 3G network by March 2025.

Some mobile operators were unhappy with the plan, wanting more time and control over which technology they decommissioned first.

However, government amended the final deadline, with both now set for 31 December 2027. The switch-off will begin on 1 June 2025.

Moreover, mobile operators can decide in which order to switch off their legacy networks.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, former minister of communications.

“Some operators have indicated that they will commence with the shutdown of 3G in June 2024 in support of the policy,” the department told MyBroadband.

However, it noted that the dates are subject to change depending on a risk impact assessment study that will be published within a year of the final publication of the next-generation radio frequency spectrum policy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet approved the final next-generation radio frequency spectrum policy in late 2023 after missing the deadline initially set for 30 September that same year.

The decision was made during the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference.

“The WRC-23 concluded on 15 December 2023. The outcomes of this conference have a major impact on the Spectrum Policy and the regulatory framework of South Africa,” the department said.

“The decision of cabinet was affirmed by the outcomes of the WRC-23.”

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies said Minister Mondli Gungubele fully intends to publish the policy as approved by cabinet.

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South Africa’s 2G and 3G switch-off — what it means for mobile data speeds