End of life for 3rd generation or 3G cell mobile networks illustrated with sign superimposed on rural cellphone tower.
Image: Jon Anders Wiken/Adobe Stock

It is the end of an era. Twenty years ago, 3G wireless connectivity started rolling out across Australia, and it was revolutionary. The previous 2G network had a speed limitation of 40 kbps, while 3G could access up to 2 Mbps. That was enough to power everything from social media networks on consumer phones to fleets of ambulances and the EFTPOS machines we all take for granted.

Now that is all coming to an end, and the transition might not be as pain-free as some might hope. Many commercial technologies continue to rely on 3G connectivity, and adopting the replacement 4G technology might require companies to buy new equipment, experience disruption as the new technology is rolled out across the fleet, and implement new training and change management practices.

Jump to:

Australia is not the first country to say goodbye to 3G

3G networks started retiring in 2020, when VodafoneZiggo in the Netherlands became the first to find the “off switch.” Since then, 3G networks in entire nations like Germany, Greece, Norway and Slovakia have been retired. Service providers in the U.S. are also rapidly shuttering their 3G connections.

While the shutdown has caused many devices to require upgrades and rendered other devices obsolete, the transition has been relatively smooth and well-planned. Nonetheless, as the Australian economy faces a recession, a mandatory fleet upgrade may not have been something that logistics, medical, mining and manufacturing companies wanted to deal with.

Why is the 3G network in Australia shutting down?

The simple reason is resourcing. All wireless connectivity occurs via radio waves, and there are only so many “slots” on the spectrum that are available.

Currently, there are three carriers that currently run 3G networks: Telstra, Vodafone and Optus. All three telcos once dedicated two “slots” of radio waves to 3G, but each turned off one of those “slots” around 2019. The final switch to turn off the other slot happens on Dec. 15, 2023, for Vodafone and June 30, 2024, for Telstra. Optus will be the last carrier to support 3G, but it too will go completely dark by September 2024.

Of course, the telcos are not retiring that spectrum. They’re simply going to re-deploy it. The spectrum previously used for 3G can then power 4G or 5G connections instead. With more people using those faster devices, it no longer makes commercial sense for the telco to continue to dedicate such valuable and limited resources to a declining audience.

SEE: Download our guide on 5G mobile networks.

This happened before — 2G was switched off in full back in 2016. It will happen again, as there will presumably be a 6G at some point, and then the 4G connections will become too legacy to bother with.

The big problem this time is just how many critical systems still rely on 3G connections.

Why the shutting down of 3G in Australia will have a bigger impact than 2G

When the 2G network started going dark, people found themselves unable to make phone calls, send texts or access what limited internet 2G was fast enough to support. That was annoying for the few people who hadn’t yet upgraded to 3G, sure, but it was only a mild irritation.

3G, meanwhile, is a much bigger deal. Many critical services still connect to the internet via 3G, including security systems, medical alarms, EFTPOS machines and logistics telematics. Many of the trucks that carry food around the country or ambulances that get patients to hospitals rely on telematics for their guidance systems.

In other words, 3G was the first wireless technology that made the Internet of Things feasible, and this was embraced by fleet companies, logistics providers, government contractors and other businesses that use machine-to-machine communications. A small number of people’s phones going silent is nothing compared to the potential impact of having those systems go dark.

Can Australian companies not simply upgrade to 4G devices?

The good news is that in almost all cases, there are 4G alternatives to fleets of 3G-enabled devices. The problem is that for many organizations that have made these devices critical to their operations, the upgrade path isn’t necessarily straightforward, and they are running out of time.

Three things in particular make an upgrade to 4G a problematic proposition.

1. Cost

Upgrading from 3G to 4G can represent a massive capital expenditure for organizations that are suddenly left with a fleet of 3G SIMs that need to be put into end-of-life management and replaced. There are also likely to be infrastructure upgrades required to facilitate these devices onto the network.

2. Technical challenges

In addition to replacing the SIMs, many older devices will either not be compatible with 4G networks, or will not run efficiently without significant work done upgrading them. Furthermore, the simple act of bringing them all online can be a logistical and support challenge for the IT team.

3. Disruption to operations

There will likely be some downtime and disruption to upgrade each device. This means vehicles off the road, equipment offline and people unable to work for a time. While such an upgrade can be staggered while there’s still time left before the network shutdown, it still means lower overall productivity for the organization over that time. 4G devices and connectivity will also often come with features that require some training.

What Australian enterprises with 3G equipment need to do immediately

Any enterprise with a fleet of 3G devices really needs to be moving on this challenge immediately, because the window for a planned, controlled and minimally disruptive upgrade is closing rapidly.

The first step will be to get the IT team to conduct a total audit of the organization’s current infrastructure and identify what needs to be totally replaced, what can be upgraded and what can be retired without an upgrade. This will help the organization understand the scope of the migration and plan accordingly.

SEE: Ease your transition to 4G and 5G with these checklists on managing and troubleshooting Android and iOS devices.

Once the assessment is complete, the IT team needs to draw up a staggered plan to roll out the system upgrade in waves, ensuring there are enough resources to provide support and training to employees on the new systems. Should the overall tech environment also need upgrades to be able to handle the additional data capacity, security requirements and speeds involved, then that should be planned first, before the IoT devices are rolled over.

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays