From January, 3G technology will start being retired across our EE mobile network. For many this will be a landmark moment, representing an exciting upgrade for the UK as it embraces modern mobile networks which offer faster, more reliable, and more widespread connectivity.
3G has already been switched off in many countries around the world. Doing it here will help strengthen the performance of 4G and 5G across the country, so more of our customers get a superior mobile experience in more places, more of the time.
Getting our approach to 3G retirement right
Having first announced our intention to close our 3G network back in 2018, and reaffirmed it as part of an industry-wide commitment to the UK Government in 2021, we’ve spent this time liaising closely with Ofcom, working with our charity partners like AbilityNet to provide digital skills training and create helpful resources, as well as conducting a successful 3G trial in Warrington to help ensure we get our approach for the nationwide switch off right.
For us, that means making sure we have informed all our 3G customers about what is happening, when and why, and have the dedicated support available to help them make the transition successfully before January. It also means conducting the technical switch off in the New Year in a responsible and phased way, with dedicated pauses built-in to the process so we can monitor progress at every stage until its completion in March.
While our 3G network has delivered on what it was built to do, it is now 20 years old and has been made redundant by newer technologies. With our 2G network remaining for voice calls and texts, there is nothing else 3G does that is not improved by using 4G or 5G.
It is no surprise then that the use of 3G across our EE network continues to fall to record low levels; responsible for less than 0.4% of all downloaded data. According to Ofcom, EE customers only spend 2.7% of their time connected to 3G, which is the lowest amount of time of any UK mobile operator.
There are two major reasons why these numbers are so small. First, we have built the largest and most widespread 4G network in the UK. We have also spent the last three years expanding it to a further 1,500 rural communities, including some of the most remote parts of the UK, to ensure more people than ever have access to the most reliable mobile technology available today. And secondly, most customers have already left 3G behind and successfully moved to 4G or 5G.
Keeping the vulnerable connected with free 4G phones
For the small minority who still use a 3G-only phone or data plan, we recognise this is a period of change. We are committed to ensuring all of them, especially vulnerable customers, have the support available to help them make the transition successfully if they want to.
As well as being the only UK mobile operator to offer all vulnerable customers a free 4G-ready mobile phone (or a big discount on a pay monthly plan for those who want to choose their own handset), we have also set up a dedicated freephone line where they can call our 3G support team to talk through their individual needs and get help with migrating.
It is also important to remember that some customers have no desire or need to use mobile data. These people, if they decide not to transition to a more modern mobile network, will not be impacted by the retirement of 3G as our 2G network, which like our 4G one already covers 99% of the UK population, is remaining for voice calls and texts.
999 calls are also not reliant on 3G being available, with EE customers still able to call the emergency services as they do today by using our 2G network or Wi-Fi Calling. In an emergency, 999 calls will also automatically roam onto any available mobile network to connect.
Embracing next generation connectivity
For those who do use mobile internet however, one the biggest benefits of switching off 3G is that we can reuse the network spectrum to deliver enhanced 5G performance, meaning their everyday mobile experience is more reliable, more sustainable, more secure, and much faster.
After 3G has been retired, customers in Belfast, Darlington, Uxbridge, Dartford, Solihull, York, Dagenham, Hayes, Harringay and London will be among some of the first to benefit from superior 5G connectivity.
Having been the first mobile operator to launch a 5G service in the UK four years ago, our 5G network is growing all the time. It currently covers 72% of the entire UK population and will get a big boost from 3G retirement as we aim to deliver a 5G ‘on demand’ connection anywhere in the UK by 2028.
Dawn of a new era
When 3G launched in the early 2000s, Tony Blair was Prime minister, Gareth Gates was topping the music charts, and the Nokia 1100 was the best-selling mobile phone. There was no iPhone, no Netflix, no Spotify, no Zoom, no WhatsApp or videocalls on the move, and no cloud gaming.
3G was built to serve a different world than the one we live in today. Couple that with the need to deliver the best mobile experiences in a more sustainable way, while reusing finite network spectrum, and the time has come to embrace a new era of mobile technology.
Doing so – and doing it in the right way – will ensure our customers, the planet and the wider UK economy benefit from everything 4G and 5G have to offer.
By Greg McCall, Chief Networks Officer
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