South African 2G switch-off warning

South Africa has started the process of switching off its legacy cellular networks, beginning by blocking the sale of new 2G and 3G devices this year.

While sunsetting older cellular technologies will free up valuable network resources, some concerns remain that the switch-off could unknowingly impact essential systems.

For example, there could be old sensors or other machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) systems that only wake up every few months or even years to conserve battery power.

After waking up, these sensors briefly attach to a 2G network, send an SMS or a few data packets with an update, then go to sleep again.

However, MTN South Africa has told MyBroadband that not knowing which systems would be impacted was not the concern.

“MTN has full visibility of which device types and device capabilities are attaching to the MTN network,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“2G is mainly used to provide voice services and, in some cases, low-speed data connectivity used by machine-to-machine devices and legacy IoT devices.”

In 2021, Vodacom told MyBroadband that it did not have immediate plans to switch off its 2G network specifically for M2M and IoT customers.

“These devices are often deeply embedded in other infrastructure, such as vehicles, utility plants, hospitals, and other mission-critical applications,” Vodacom stated.

MTN SA said it was working with M2M and IoT customers to provide guidance on the medium-term shutdown of its 2G network.

It assured it provide them with sufficient time to upgrade their M2M and IoT modules to more efficient 4G technologies before the 2G network is entirely shutdown.

MTN has declined to say how many M2M or IoT subscribers it has, as the information is competitor-sensitive. Vodacom also doesn’t report its IoT customers separately but said in its latest financial results that it supported 10.3 million IoT connections.

“MTN is managing the legacy mobile technology shutdown in a phased and systematic approach,” it said.

“We are running various user migration campaigns to notify affected customers. The interventions vary depending on the services consumed.”

MTN also noted that the dates for the switch-off are still indicative and subject to an impact assessment.

Although the dates have yet to be finalised, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) has stated that it wants operators to start shutting down their legacy networks from 1 June 2025.

By 31 December 2027, it wants 2G and 3G completely decommissioned in South Africa.

MTN has stated in a notice on its website that it aims to switch off its 3G network by 31 December 2026. It has not given a date for shutting down its 2G network.

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The DCDT has also set additional deadlines for banning new 2G and 3G devices from South Africa in its recently-published Next-Generation Radio Frequency Spectrum Policy.

First, it wants type approvals on all new 2G and 3G devices halted by 30 September 2024.

This means the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will no longer approve new 2G and 3G-only devices, effectively blocking them from being sold locally.

Devices already type-approved in South Africa can still be legally imported and sold.

After blocking type approvals, the DCDT wants to ban networks from activating any new 2G and 3G devices on their networks on 31 December 2024.

Vodacom previously told MyBroadband that it supported government more tightly controlling imports and type approval of 2G and 3G devices.

“Government plays a key role in guiding this transition. The first step in the process involves managing the inflow of 2G and 3G devices into the country,” it stated.

However, while it supports controlling imports, Vodacom expressed concern about placing all networks on arbitrary switch-off deadlines for their legacy networks.

“Vodacom has advocated for an industry-led timeline in response to the challenge of migrating users from legacy (2G/3G terminals) to more digitally enabled 4G/5G devices,” it said.

It said it was already gradually migrating from legacy 2G and 3G technologies to modern 4G and 5G.

Vodacom estimated that several million 2G and 3G devices remain active on South Africa’s networks, as well as a few million machine-to-machine devices.

It said it hoped the DCDT and other stakeholders would consider industry submissions, particularly the underlying factor of customer demand for 2G and 3G services.

The following table summarises the DCDT’s past plans to switch off 2G and 3G in South Africa and its more recently published deadlines. Red indicates a missed deadline, amber a deadline amended before it was missed, and black a new deadline.

Deadline 2G 3G
1 December 2023 Original deadline for publishing final next-generation spectrum policy
(Cabinet approved: 29 November 2023. Only published on 28 May 2024.)
31 December 2023 Prohibit new connections or activation of 2G devices
31 March 2024 Shutting down 2G services Prohibit licencing 3G devices
30 June 2024 Shutting down 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
30 September 2024 Prohibit type-approval of new 2G and 3G devices
31 December 2024 Prohibit activation of new 2G and 3G devices on networks
1 June 2025 Commence shutting down 2G and 3G networks
31 December 2027 Total shutdown of 2G and 3G networks

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South African 2G switch-off warning