Living In A Post-GSM World

While in Europe there are few network operators if any at this point in time thinking openly about shutting down their 2G GSM networks, network operators in other parts of the world are seriously contemplating it or have already done it.

One of the very first operators that shut down its 2G network was NTTDoCoMo in Japan. Agreed, it was a special case, it wasn't GSM it was a local proprietary solution, but still. Last year, AT&T has announced that they will shut down their GSM network in 2017. That's not so far away anymore and from what I can tell they are serious about it. And the latest example is a network operator in Macau according to this post on Telegeography. O.k. that's a special case again but still the number of 2G network shutdowns is growing.

It makes me wonder how much longer it will take in Europe before first operators seriously contemplate a move. Two or three years ago I still saw a meaning of having 2G EDGE networks in the countryside. Web pages were smaller than today, smartphone penetration was nowhere near today's level and web browsing over EDGE was still working, especially with network side compression. But today it has almost become impossible. As soon as there's only 2G network coverage in an area, all smartphones drop on that EDGE signal that completely becomes overburdened. And then there's the size of web pages that keeps growing and even smartphone optimized version of web pages come with lots of JavaScript and other niceties. It has come to the point that I have switched off 2G in my smartphone not only because there's no Wideband AMR but also because falling back to EDGE for data is just useless anyway.

Sure there are perhaps quite a number of 2G-only embedded modules in machines today (including the block heater of my car and my GSM controllable power socket) and 2G only mobiles in the hands of people. But I guess their number will not dwindle before an announcement is made. Sure, there will be lots of complaints especially from the embedded side.This makes me wonder how the story will look like in Europe!? With multi-RAT base stations it might not be very costly to keep GSM running in the future. As traffic goes down on GSM one could re-farm the spectrum and put LTE in the freed space or extend the bandwidth of existing LTE carriers. That inevitably means LTE will be deployed in many different bands simultaneously which will require efficient load balancing algorithms between the different carriers. But compared to other features such as SON, HetNet, etc. that should be rather simple to accomplish.

5 years ago I already speculated about the conditions for GSM phaseout and potential exit scenarios on this blog. Have a look here. The reasons for keeping a GSM network I listed 5 years ago are pretty much no longer here due to the emergence of LTE on high and low frequency bands and 3G devices now including the 900 band for Europe and at least two or three roaming bands. Good to see how technology has advanced. So let's see which of the exit scenarios I described in that five year old blog post will be used.

3 thoughts on “Living In A Post-GSM World”

  1. I don’t think that GSM will die in most networks, it will simply fade away with time as the network operators allocate more spectrum to UTMS and LTE. With the availability of network equipment that will run GSM, UTMS and LTE at the same time (e.g. NSN’s single RAN), network operators should be able to keep GSM running cheaply on a small amount of spectrum for those legacy devices.

  2. It would be interesting to know how many M2M chips are running on GSM only, that could be an issue for network operators to shutdown 2G especially if they have public services using them (buses, signs, power meters…).

  3. One thing is almost certain, in five years time, you’ll be writing another article about the imminent demise of GSM. I tend to agree with Philip, GSM will fade in time, and that will be driven by the need to support legacy devices – like my Blackberry for example, I’m still an EDGE enabled die-hard!

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