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The reality of Australia’s 3G shutdown needs to sink in before it comes back to bite our essential services
Wed, 1st Feb 2023
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Since 2003, thousands of IoT devices and systems have benefitted from the arrival of 3G in Australia. The network has served as the backbone of many industries which have relied on it to stay connected and transmit critical data. From EFTPOS machines to keeping ambulance fleets connected, 3G has become a utility many organisations cannot function without.

But as we head towards the shutdown of Telstra’s 3G network, our reliance on 3G puts many industries and services at risk. Unlike other technological transitions, Telstra’s switch-off is finite. After June 2024, the signal will be turned off, making many devices and systems redundant.

To ensure Australia’s critical services are not impacted and businesses successfully transition to 4G, we need to focus on three key things: educating the market on the risks of doing nothing, clearly articulating the steps organisations need to take before June 2024 and working with industry and government to ensure no business is left behind.

The evolution of Australia’s carrier network

Every generation of technology reaches a point of obsolescence before it is superseded. When it was released in 1991, 2G technology was revolutionary, with 40kbps speeds. However, it has long since been eclipsed by 3G (2Mbps) and 4G LTE (150Mbps), and now with 5G (1Gbps).

The evolution of the carrier network has two different objectives. The first is to increase data speeds. The second is to better meet the needs of IoT devices, which often only transmit small amounts of data and therefore do not require high data bandwidth but need long battery life and greater coverage. For carriers to roll out these new network services, they need to shut down older networks to re-farm the spectrum bands.

For this reason, telcos in Australia have decided to repurpose the 3G spectrum band. Telstra has confirmed it will shut down its 3G network on June 30, 2024, with Vodafone flicking the switch a few months earlier on December 15, 2023. Optus has yet to give a hard date but has started reallocating its 3G 2100MHz spectrum band.

Key industries at risk

We estimate that Australia has between 2 and 3 million active IoT devices operating on 3G. M2M alone provides 170,000 3G connections to its customers. In addition to key industries like mining and resources, major users of 3G-enabled devices include healthcare providers, utilities, emergency services and road authorities.

The reality of the 3G shutdown is that once the signal is switched off, all 3G-based services and devices will cease to operate. This includes flood monitoring systems in regional Australia, GPS systems on ambulances, ‘man down’ dongles in care homes, and even traffic signal systems.

And while it may feel uncomfortable to prioritise one industry over another, when you consider the critical nature of these services, it starts to become clear which industries and organisations need support.

Barriers to the transition

To date, we have helped multiple organisations transition off 3G. This includes fleets of connected parking meters for councils, ticketing solutions for public transport providers, and SCADA devices used by Utilities to monitor sewer networks. Two key barriers to transition have emerged. They include a lack of awareness about the 3G shutdown and limited internal technical resource to support it.

In certain respects, it appears as if some segments of the Australian market are in denial or believe the 3G shutdown may be extended. Looking overseas, this is not uncommon – especially in Europe. In Belgium, three extensions have been granted by the regulator, and in Iceland, they recently announced the switch off of 2G would be delayed by an additional year.

Unfortunately for those businesses, an extension is not on the cards, and Telstra has been clear about its position and plans for several years.

Hidden costs of a late transition

Different companies are at various stages in their transition programs to 4G LTE. For those who have yet to give serious thought to their strategy, it is imperative that they start right away.

The best planned and executed migrations can take between 12 to 18 months. These projects often require a re-evaluation of the business and technical aspects of the IoT solution. This can lead to the need for a redesign of the technical architecture, as well as hardware and equipment replacements in the field.

A key theme of M2M projects has been the hidden costs of project planning, and the small surprises, which can have a significant impact. For example, 4G does not always work where 3G works, antennas purchased to support 3G may not be compatible with 4G, power and connector requirements may be different, and it is likely a new SIM plan will be required. Another consideration is the lead time on hardware, which can take up to six months if sourced overseas.

Ensuring Australia’s 3G shutdown is a success

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If we could reset the clock as a nation, we could consider national education and advertising campaigns to engage with businesses and raise awareness early. In an ideal world, these activities would be led by telcos and supported by government – recognising the fact that getting it wrong could impact many people and across many industries.

For now, the focus needs to be on helping businesses take practical steps, making the transition as efficiently as possible, and preventing business disruption and any negative impact on customers.

For businesses, the most important factor is to not underestimate the time it will take to upgrade. Ensuring a smooth transition will depend on having a clear migration plan, understanding the needs of existing and future devices, choosing the most suitable network technology and sticking to an achievable timeline.

Australia’s 3G shutdown will not fail to bite

If we look back in time, comparisons can be drawn between Australia’s 3G switch-off and Y2K. They are both major events with the potential to impact large numbers of networks and organisations. The major difference is that, unlike the millennium bug, Australia’s 3G shutdown will not fail to bite.

The good news is that there is still time to plan for and upgrade devices and systems, but this will require critical sectors to be supported by telcos, IoT experts and governments who may be able to provide additional resources.

The 3G switch-off will impact all sides of industry and government. Additionally, devices, networks and data are interlinked and need to be considered as a whole.

If we consider the investment that was made to transition Australia from analogue PAL to digital TV nearly ten years ago, it shows the effort that is required to support a major technological shift. But unlike ensuring Australians can tune in to the latest episode of Landline, the consequences of not transitioning critical services to 4G LTE in time will have much deeper and more profound consequences.