While the rollout of 5G networks regularly hogs the headlines, indications that in the UK 2G networks will face switch off sooner rather than later have failed to achieve the same level of attention – at least in consumer media – despite the significant applications and user groups that still rely on them.

While 2G networks continue to serve a dwindling number of voice users, they nevertheless underpin the functionality of an ever-increasing number of M2M devices. These include the EC mandated eCall system (an in-vehicle system that, among other things, is designed to call the emergency services automatically in the event of an accident) and the government’s late and much maligned smart meter rollout.

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In a report we prepared for the UK Spectrum Policy Forum, we concluded that migrating the remaining 2G voice users onto 4G compatible devices is achievable ­– but by no means trivial ­– with a good education and awareness campaign, mirroring the transition from analogue to digital TV broadcasting between 2007 and 2012. However, dealing with the high-profile M2M applications that still rely on the 2G spectrum is much more challenging – not least because the number of devices involved is enormous.

Today, the eCall system must be fitted to every new type-approved car. With the average life expectancy of a modern vehicle being between 15-20 years, this suggests the 2G networks will be needed until 2040 for the eCall system.

Similarly, the 2G network is used by smart meters. In a bid to reduce carbon emissions, the UK Government has allocated £13 billion to install smart meters in UK homes and, as of June 2019, approximately 15 million meters had been rolled out, with an additional million being added to that figure each quarter. If everything goes according to plan – and very little has to date – more than 50 million devices will be out in the field by the time the project is completed.<

With an anticipated programme completion date of 2024, and smart meters lasting up to 15 years, these units will also be in service until almost 2040.

With 2G networks required for at least another 20 years, but expectations of their sunsetting within the next ten years or so, a solution must be found to provide national coverage for the millions of devices already out in the field and those soon to be rolled out. One possibility is that this can be addressed as part of the recently announced shared rural network (SRN). The SRN is tasked with cutting out rural ‘not-spots’ – the UK Government has allocated up to £500 million, supported by an additional £530 million from the ‘big four’ mobile operators, to allow rural users to share spectrum owned and operated by different mobile service providers.

As operators strive to free up spectrum for new technologies and rationalise the number of networks under management, sunsetting older networks is becoming part of the mobile business roadmap right across Europe. And given the government’s commitment to the smart meter programme, Real Wireless has suggested that plans for the SRN could also encompass the setting up of a single 2G network that would provide the long term support for the critical M2M services over the next 20 years.

With an announcement expected in the New Year, it will be interesting to see how the government chooses to address what threatens to be a significant – and costly – problem.

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