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The big 3G network phone shutdown: Everything you need to know

Jürgen Diermaier
(Image credit: Jürgen Diermaier / Pixabay )

With 5G cellular phone networks offering supreme mobile speed and reliability rapidly rolling out further coverage, networks are all looking to retire their 3G coverage. Find out why, when, if you’ll be affected an confusingly, why 2G networks are still running…

Why we are waving goodbye to 3G

There are good reasons why networks aren’t just leaving 3G as an outdated option, and they all ultimately boil down to money. 

Spectrum, which is the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over, is in limited supply to mobile network providers. The more spectrum made available for a connectivity type, such as 3G, 4G or 5G, the better the service will be across reliability, speed and coverage. Therefore, closing down the 3G network, will free up spectrum that can be used for modern and more lucrative 4G and 5G services.  

Additionally, switching off 3G will allow network providers to get rid of dated equipment and reduce their costs as it’ll be replaced with modern, less power-hungry alternatives for 4G, 5G and 6G for future use. 

Why 2G will be around a little longer 

It’s quite confusing that 3G is being retired, 2G networks are being left running. The reason behind this is the older GSM 2G technology is a lot less power-hungry, making it a good match for some Internet of Things devices, in particular those that require long battery life.

This said, UK networks have committed to retiring out 2G by 2033. The US is a lot less dependent on 2G technology so has already been phased out by most carriers. And it's a similar situation in Australia, where the 2G network was switched off in 2017, getting replaced by 3G and 4G.

What this means if you use 3G services 

The biggest problem caused by the 3G shutdown will be for those who live or work in an area that only gets 3G coverage – as they’ll be no coverage after the cut off. This will be more likely an issue for those living in rural locations. Let’s be clear that this will be a rare scenario though as 4G and 5G networks continue to be rolled out and the 3G shutdown will make filling in any coverage holes within those more modern networks much more likely. 

If your phone, or device like an old Kindle, only supports 3G, you’ll have no choice but to upgrade in order to stay connected. Phones are getting cheaper all the time and if you don’t want spend a lot, we’ve got you covered with our burner phones (opens in new tab) and budget phones (opens in new tab) guides. 

As well as phones and devices, cars will be affected too – mainly those made between 2010 and 2021, which use 3G for smart services such as navigation systems. However, a lot of this will be solved via software upgrades and some will even update wirelessly. 

The big 3G shutdown date 

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing – there is no one 3G cut-off date. Different mobile networks will end their 3G services at different times – some have confirmed when this will be and some haven’t, yet.  

All UK networks have agreed to switch of 3G by 2033 but in reality they’ll all do it much sooner. Dates are elusive from all mobile network operators other than EE to date, who have said they plan to retire 3G by 2023.

It’s a similar story in Australia, with Telstra being the only network which has confirmed its 3G shutdown date: June 2024. However, parts of the 3G network Down Under are already offline.

In the US, AT&T has already switched off its end 3G and Sprint will follow suit in just a few days, on March 31. T-Mobile is set to retire 3G on July 1, and Verizon in December this year.

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Rachael is a British journalist with 18 years experience in the publishing industry. Since working on www.digitalcameraworld.com (opens in new tab), she’s been freelancing, and contributing to some of the world’s best-loved websites and magazines including T3.com and TechRadar.com and has also had a book, iPad for Photographers, published. She's currently acting as editor of 5GRadar.com - a website specializing in the latest cellular technology.