The sun sets on 3G

With uncertainty about the future of communications we are often asked for recommendations on hardware. Should the designer starting out on a project now go for 2G, 3G or 4G modules or hang on for the imminent arrival of 5G for it to solve all of our problems?

It would be a brave person to say what will definitely happen and this article doesn’t claim a definitive answer but there are a couple of factors to be aware of:

Start with 3G. The problem here is that 4G does everything that 3G does but is cheaper for the Operators to run and faster/lower latency for the end user. So currently there is ‘committed support’ for 3G in the UK only out to 2020. Which isn’t as far as most people expect.  Most IoT and M2M units will be 2G/3G so they won’t be stranded but they will perhaps be slower than planned before the end of their design life.

It is often assumed that 2G will be around forever. It has the lowest cost module, and the mast footprint is the largest making it the easy way to support rural sites and low cost applications. But in the UK ‘committed support’ runs out in 2025. Part of the reason why may be the rise of Narrow Band Internet of Things (NB-IoT).  NB-IoT has lower hardware cost and offers +20dB over 2G in any given location offering much larger cell size, better building penetration and much much better battery life. The mast infrastructure for NB-IoT is already installed and live in a rapidly increasing number of countries around the world with UK going live 2018.

5G is already being heralded as the solution to many problems. Much as 3G and 4G were. But although the technology has become available ahead of schedule there appears to be a lack of appetite, on the part of consumers, to pay more.  As a result, this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) was talking about 2020-2023 initial deployment to early adoption and 2023-2025 for mass adoption. And that volume will be crucial in bringing the cost of 5G modules down to a practical level where IoT can adopt 5G as an industry.

As a result of this delay, it is likely that a lot of the features posted as the improvements that 5G will bring will now be cannibalised by the existing 4G networks. NB-IoT also hangs off the existing 4G system (often with only a software upgrade required for the masts) further strengthening that technologies flexibility and stretching its longevity.  

The situation is more complex in global terms. In the U.S. some States have already shut down 2G completely, the same is true of many Asia-Pacific Operators. In the Nordics Operators are re-farming their 3G frequencies this year and next while retaining thier 2G service.

Making the right choice of module is crucial, especially in M2M/IoT where product life could easily be seven to ten years. For more information about how Mobius Networks can help you navigate the right way through the future communications roadmap contact us. [email protected] or call us on +44 1530 511 180

Written by

Douglas Gilmour

Douglas formed Mobius in 2003 after twenty years’ experience in the Semiconductor industry. He was driven by the idea that airtime could be better and more secure.