Telegeography reports that Telenor Norway's CTO Magnus Zetterberg has recently said during the company's analyst and investor day that they intend to switch-off their UMTS network in 2020 and their GSM network in 2025. While others such as AT&T have already stated their GSM exit in 2017, the rest of the world will likely follow Telenor's example as there is too much embedded infrastructure around that still uses GSM.
Anyway, this is the first announcement of a network operator I have seen concerning the switch-off of a 3G UMTS network in the not too distant future. If you know of any others please leave a comment, I'd be interested. From my point of view that makes a lot of sense. In Germany, and I suppose in many other countries as well, there are few phones sold these days in network operator stores that are not LTE capable. That means that in 5 years from a large majority of smartphones and other end user devices used in the network will be LTE capable.
In 2011 I wrote a post on what I saw as the preconditions for switching off UMTS in the future. Apart from a critical LTE device mass my other two points I raised at the time, LTE coverage and Voice on LTE, seem quite achievable in 5 years time. Already today, LTE coverage is quite impressive in Germany and elsewhere, and is, due to the use of the 800 MHz band, already better than 3G coverage. And as far as voice over LTE is concerned that is likely to happen in the next 5 years as well. Quite a number of network operators have launched VoLTE in recent months and in 5 years time either nobody will talk about VoLTE anymore or most network operators will have launched it. In either case that's not going to be a showstopper for shutting down 3G networks anymore, either.
Couple the 3G switch-off with a base station equipment refresh that happens every few years anyway and the freed-up spectrum can immediately be used for LTE. So while in 2011 a UMTS switch-off was still rather theoretical, a switch-off in 2020 looks quite practical and realistic from a 2015 perspective.