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EE UK Update on 3G Mobile Switch Off and 5G Spectrum Refarming

Tuesday, Dec 12th, 2023 (11:09 am) - Score 8,040
ee mobile mast tower in scotland

Mobile network operator EE (BT) has published a short progress update on their national plan and timeline for switching off the old 3G data (mobile broadband) network, which reveals some of the first UK locations that will be benefitting from the re-farming of related 3G spectrum for use by modern 5G services.

All of the country’s primary mobile network operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three UK) are currently in the process of phasing out their old 3G services, with 2G services expected to follow by 2033 at the latest (here). Most operators expect to have completely phased out 3G by the end of 2024, although O2 (VMO2) won’t begin this phase until 2025.

NOTE: EE customers only spend 2.7% of their time connected to 3G, and it now accounts for less than 0.4% of all downloaded data. But 3G still represents around 35% of their mobile network’s total power consumption.

The reason why older 2G signals will be sticking around for longer is because they remain useful as a low-power fallback and are still necessary for some rural areas, calls to emergency services, as well as for particular applications (e.g. many Smart Meters and other IoT / M2M services are still dependent upon it).

For its part, EE began moving customers off their old 3G network this year, but the final switch off phase is due to begin next month and run until March 2024 (details). The operator has already conducted a trial of this in Warrington (here), which they say resulted in “no customer complaints about network coverage or performance” and “no capacity issues on either our 2G or 4G networks, despite a natural rise in traffic as more people relied on them every day.”

The radio spectrum that EE frees up as a result of this change will go toward improving the performance and coverage of their more modern 4G and 5G networks. As part of that, EE’s latest update has named some of the first locations that will benefit from the related spectrum re-farming, specifically for enhanced 5G services: Belfast, Darlington, Uxbridge, Dartford, Solihull, York, Dagenham, Hayes, Harringay and London.

EE will also be keeping all customers registered as “vulnerable” connected by offering them a free 4G-ready mobile phone (or a discount on a monthly plan if they prefer). EE customers can find out if their mobile phone is already compatible with 4G or 5G, or to get more advice and support with migrating, by texting “HANDSET” (without the speech marks) to 150.

Finally, it’s worth nothing that EE’s 5G network currently reaches 72% of the entire UK population, rising to 99% with 4G.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Cheesemp says:

    I get why this is happening but as someone who barely see’s 4G in a small town from just two networks I hope its not a sign things are about to get worse.

    (According to the providers and OFCOM I should have good indoor signal from all providers – I’d hate to see what bad is like!)

    1. Avatar photo Michael V says:

      None of the four Operators will leave a place without 4G once 3G~HSPA is switched off.

    2. Avatar photo Cheesemp says:

      @Michael V – Thanks for the response – I understand the 3G will be replaced by 4G. My concern is down to the fact the 4G signal disappears and is replaced by 3G inside. Will the stronger 4G penetrate as well as 3G does? (My 70s house turns slow weak 4G to 3G.)

    3. Avatar photo Jon says:

      EE’s 4G coverage already exceeds that of 2G & 3G in very many areas, due to the low-band 800Mhz rollout.

      It’s not the radio technology (or “G”) that dictates coverage patterns, it’s the site location and frequency band. Both 4G & 5G are deployed on low-band (800 & 700Mhz respectively) as well as high-band. Neither 2G nor 3G have had any low-band deployment.

    4. Avatar photo Simon Farnsworth says:

      There is a slight link between the technology and coverage patterns – for a given power level and frequency, 3G will have the worst coverage, then 2G, then 4G and 5G coming in at level pegging, due to the necessary SNR to decode the signal correctly, and to the effects of other users on the noise level your device sees.

      And there’s also a non-technical difference; until relatively recently, network planning would deliberately restrict power on 4G networks so that you could always switch back to 2G/3G for voice calls, even if your phone doesn’t support VoLTE. I wouldn’t expect those decisions to be reviewed until the network is preparing for 3G switch-off in an area, and even then, I’d only expect review of a decision where it means that there’s places with 3G signal but not 4G; in that respect, having the EE app installed on your phone and configured to report network information to EE is going to help you get a good fix in your area (on the app I have installed, it’s “Manage”, then “Settings”, then “App settings”, then “Share device location” to report network information to EE and clue them in if there’s somewhere with 3G but no 4G coverage

    5. Avatar photo Jon says:

      You’re right that EE’s network design has to have 2G1800 at slightly bigger footprint than 4G1800 to allow CSFB, but this doesn’t apply to 3G2100 or, more importantly overall, low-band 4G800. My point was directed at the mainstream press who report the popular misconception that the RAT (or “G”) dictates the coverage footprint – other factors are far more important.

      In the majority of cell-edge circumstances where L1800 is unusable from a given sector but G1800 is acceptable, the chances are that another serving cell provides good 4G and thus a handover has long-since happened.

      The sooner 3G is binned and the spectrum re-used for current techs, the better.

  2. Avatar photo Martin says:

    I’m on a MNVO using the EE network and indoors at home while I can get a 4G signal, it’s rather slow eg about 6Mbps on average while outdoors, this jumps to double figures easily and is a lot faster. I only hope that around here instead of refarming ex 3G spectrum for 5G, they actually use it for 4G.

    Mind you as slow as EE can be inside my flat, it’s a improvement on Three/Vodafone where I can barely get a 4G signal eg 1Mbps on average and the less said about O2 the better.

    While EE should go though with bringing 5G to more places, they still need to improve on their 4G service inside buildings and this should be priority No1 when refarming ex 3G spectrum.

    1. Avatar photo Spotify95 says:

      EE haven’t had low band 3G unlike Vodafone and O2. So reforming 3G to 4G won’t actually improve coverage especially if indoors is 800MHz and outdoors is 1800MHz (more capacity on the latter band).

  3. Avatar photo elBison says:

    I wonder how long until Lyca mobile (EE) is forced to introduce VoLTE and/or VoWiFi. It’s not fun going from 5G to 2G. 20GB for £2.99 was tempting, but I really regret moving.
    And I don’t agree that the introduction of 5G/no more 3G had no complaints. I sent about 20 – on a business EE contract.

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