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Will the discontinuation of 2G and 3G networks leave roaming users without connectivity?

Will the discontinuation of 2G and 3G networks leave roaming users without connectivity?

As we advance towards the era of next-generation networks, numerous countries are progressively phasing out their reliance on 2G and 3G technologies. While this transition is necessary for the telecommunications sector to evolve (“out with the old and in with the new”), it carries the potential risk of unintentionally disconnecting international roamers if proper measures aren’t taken. As various countries retire their 2G or 3G networks at varying speeds, the interoperability of roaming services is at stake. This situation could potentially exacerbate the digital divide and impact crucial services such as emergency communication.The gradual discontinuation of older networks has been anticipated for some time; for instance, AT&T initiated the discontinuation of 3G as far back as 2017. Operators worldwide are following suit with differing degrees of urgency, resulting in an increasing number of completed network “sunsets.” For instance, 2G has been fully retired in over ten countries across the globe. In Europe, eight operators have plans to do the same before 2025, along with 19 planned 3G sunsets within the same timeframe.

While these sunsets create short-term challenges for operators (Verizon lost over a million subscriptions due to its 3G shutdown), the long-term benefit lies in freeing up essential spectrum and bandwidth for the accelerated deployment of 4G and 5G networks. When O2 Telefónica retired its 3G network in 2021 to facilitate more efficient 4G and 5G services, it achieved a 90% reduction in power consumption per transmitted byte.

Challenges for Roamers on 2G/3G Networks

Aside from the variable timelines of network sunsets, certain operators, particularly in numerous African countries, still heavily rely on 2G and 3G networks. This implies that roamers transitioning between these networks and countries that have undergone network sunsets (or vice versa) might encounter connectivity issues. This predicament presents several issues:

Widening the Digital Divide: As 2G and 3G networks are phased out, those dependent on these legacy technologies may encounter limited or no connectivity options when traveling internationally. This could further exacerbate the existing digital divide, disproportionately affecting users in regions with limited access to advanced networks.

Safety Concerns: The discontinuation of 2G and 3G networks might impede roamers’ ability to contact emergency services, potentially compromising public safety. Sunsetted networks handle voice traffic differently through Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which isn’t inherently compatible with the older networks’ methods. Roamers could find themselves unable to make voice calls and consequently unable to reach emergency services.

Revenue Loss for Operators: Lastly, the shift away from 2G and 3G networks poses financial challenges for operators, as they risk losing revenue from roamers who can no longer access these networks. Operators must strike a careful balance between capitalizing on new connectivity opportunities and ensuring a seamless experience for roamers transitioning from older networks.

To guarantee comprehensive coverage for customers during the sunset era, operators need to pursue roaming solutions that enable users to access networks that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Can VoLTE Provide a Solution?

VoLTE (Voice over LTE)-based solutions might be the solution to bridging the gap between 2G/3G and sunsetted networks. VoLTE facilitates voice calls over 4G networks, ensuring compatibility between newer and older technologies.

While a 2G/3G network doesn’t inherently support VoLTE, solutions now exist to enable data handover, effectively converting traditional circuit-switched voice calls to VoLTE. This allows a roaming connection between the two networks, bridging the interoperability gap and enabling operators to offer a seamless roaming experience for users transitioning from legacy networks to 4G/5G networks. VoLTE roaming also provides various advantages over older circuit-switched voice services, including improved voice quality, quicker call setup times, and the ability to use data services concurrently during voice calls – an added benefit for roamers.

However, several challenges must be overcome for operators to ensure these solutions are effective:

Operator Network Interoperability: Achieving a high level of integration and suitable roaming agreements may necessitate extensive coordination and negotiation.

Pricing: Despite interoperability agreements, pricing for VoLTE services can differ among operators, potentially resulting in varying pricing models or increased costs for roamers.

Device Compatibility: Older devices, especially those designed for 2G/3G networks, might not always be compatible with VoLTE. This limitation can hinder roamers’ ability to benefit from the solution and create gaps in service availability.

Striking the Right Balance

While the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks is imperative for the telecommunications industry’s advancement, a balance must be struck between embracing new technologies and ensuring interoperability for roamers transitioning from legacy networks.

Achieving this balance requires collaborative efforts and the establishment of frameworks to ensure seamless and secure transitions for roamers. Standardization initiatives, such as VoLTE roaming agreements, must be promoted to facilitate smooth voice services across diverse networks. Operators also bear the responsibility of supporting roaming customers in this evolving landscape. This might involve clear communication about network changes, guidance on device compatibility, and incentives to upgrade to 4G and 5G devices. This proactive approach could mitigate potential disruptions and minimize the digital divide.

Finally, ensuring uninterrupted access to emergency services is paramount. While VoLTE solutions offer substantial progress in this area, operators might need to explore alternative emergency communication solutions, like Emergency Services over IP (ESoIP), to ensure roamers’ safety regardless of their device.

Progress in the telecommunications industry is often likened to a “race,” whether it’s towards 5G standalone, network slicing, or 6G – the next targeted milestone (and revenue driver). Competition drives innovation, yet it’s essential for the industry to collaborate and ensure no gaps or blind spots are left in the wake of progress. The industry has an obligation not only to narrow the digital divide but also to ensure equitable access to emergency services. Without appropriate solutions, operators risk missing out on potential revenue opportunities.