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The End of 3G and why this is good for Private Networks

March 8, 2022 | AT&T announced a couple of weeks ago that they were shutting down their 3G network.  To those of us in the industry, this was not a surprise.  But this news was obviously significant enough that it was broadcast on multiple local news outlets.  Heck, it even made it to my Google News feed while I was eating my breakfast.

Every year, iGR prepares a series of reports detailing and forecasting mobile connections, subscribers and bandwidth for each region of the world.  For the last few years, 3G networks have been comprising an ever smaller portion of these numbers, especially in North America.  No surprise that the majority of connections, subscribers and bandwidth in the world are carried by 4G LTE, with 5G rising rapidly.

But it is easy to forget the amount of work that had to happen before the MNOs (including AT&T) could decommission 3G. After all, 3G was the first mobile technology that could really carry enough data bandwidth to be useful (although it is far slower than 4G and far, far, far slower than 5G!) and was used in everything from cars to homes (for alarm systems and electric meter reading, for example) to oil and gas pipelines (for sensor and valve monitoring, for example), plus everything in between.

Sierra Wireless was quoted in most of the consumer media stories I saw:

“It did take a lot of work to get all of the equipment out in in the field swapped to LTE or 5G devices. From an ankle monitor perspective, we already knew that this was going to happen, and we were prepared.  We’ve already swapped out our devices, and we are all on LTE now,”  Sierra Wireless Senior Director of Operations David Scheppegrell said.

Sierra Wireless is right. The industry did know this was going to happen and it did take a lot of work.  The problem here is that the mobile industry is on a different timeline from the industries using the technology.  Many people keep their cars more than 10 years, more than enough time for the modem providing connectivity to become obsolete.  Oil and gas pipelines can last decades, far longer than a single generation of mobile technology.  And when was the last time you replaced the electricity meter in your house?  Exactly - never.  We have been in our house 20+ years and I think we are using the original meter (or if it was replaced to use a newer wireless technology, I am not aware of it).

The takeaway here is that this will happen again.  All those LTE devices being used for M2M, IoT and other services will need to be replaced in five to ten years. And 5G one day will be replaced with 6G, etc.  The problem for the wireless industry is that as more and more devices use mobile connectivity, so the installed base that ultimately needs upgrading increases.  And someone is going to have to pay.

This is one of the drivers to private wireless networks. I have had many discussions with companies that say they want their own network, devices and associated systems so that they can control when it gets upgraded or reaches end-of-life.  Rather than wait for the MNOs to decide when a technology is dead and buried, large corporations want to control their own destiny.  The demise of 3G may therefore have been a wake-up call for those considering private networks.

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