The End Of UMTS Is Near… Those Where the Days

Recently, two German network operators publicly stated that they will switch-off their UMTS networks in Germany in mid-2021. I’ve heard about such intentions before from other network operators in Europe a few years ago but their switch-off date at the time was ‘far’ in the future. But mid-next year is pretty much around the corner and it feels much more real now. That’s the first time in my career that a wireless technology that had a tremendous impact on my life is actually switched-off and I feel a bit sentimental about it.

The last time a wireless network technology was taken off-air in Germany (not counting pager networks perhaps) was GSM’s predecessor, the C-Netz, at the end of the year 2000. 20 years ago… Since then, GSM, UMTS, LTE and now 5G are pilling up on each other and are operated in parallel. So yes, it’s time I guess that some shop cleaning is done. Switching-off 3G UMTS instead of 2G GSM probably makes a lot of sense as GSM is still used for machine type communication. But not everybody sees it like that. Switching-off both GSM and UMTS is probably not in the cards for quite some time as there are still many legacy phones in use and GSM-only phones are still sold new for a few Euros. In addition, VoLTE roaming has not yet made significant advances so I would guess that 99% of international roamers have to fall back to 2G and 3G networks for voice calls. So unless a network operator thinks roaming revenue is no longer important there’s no way to switch-off both technologies until VoLTE roaming has seen a significant uptake.

Anyway, let’s come back to the UMTS shutdown in Germany in mid-2021. I still remember very well when UMTS was the cool kid on the block. Not for the 50 billion Euros the German state received from the UMTS auctions in the year 2000 but for the massive change it brought when UMTS finally went live at the end of 2003 and early 2004. I didn’t get a UMTS device straight away because coverage was limited to a few major cities in Germany. Also, at the time, GPRS was still doing a good job at keeping me connected, including my notebook. Datarates were only a few tens of kilobits per second but web pages were still small and pages for mobile devices were even smaller. Also, only few people had a smartphone at the time so the limited capacity still served me well.

I got some early UMTS experience while I was working at Nortel and could try a Nokia 6650 which I think wasn’t really sold to end customers at least not in significant numbers. It was more of an experimental device and I still remember well how I was able to get 128 kbit/s through a live UMTS network. An amazingly high data rate at the time. Even before that I had an early Sanyo UMTS prototype in my hands that you had better run from a power supply as it would suck the battery dry in no time. But that was in test networks only so I don’t think that really counts.

But by the end of 2004, UMTS had come to Ravensburg, a city close to where I lived with a population of about 100.000so there was no stopping me anymore from getting a device for myself and not only for work. There were only few devices on the market that were even more difficult to buy. But I managed to find a shop on a cold winter evening 6th December 2004, a Vodafone branded SonyEricsson V800. My main application for buying it was using it as a wireless modem for my notebook. But I wasn’t really sure if it would support AT commands over the serial interface. So I brought my notebook to the shop and had a hard time to explain to the shop’s manager that I wanted to buy the phone but only if it would work with my notebook. That was still a thing only few people did at the time. Yes, that was only 16 years ago. It worked and so I had my first Vodafone branded UMTS phone that I used with a T-Mobile SIM card in Germany and local SIM cards in other countries for quite a number of years to keep me connected. In addition this was also the first smartphone I owned that had a reasonable camera built-in. Picture quality was great by the standards of the day but gruesome when looking at them today. But the camera made another significant change in my everyday live as from then on I always had a camera with me. I did have a digital camera at the time but that was only taken along on special occasions.

And then, UMTS became an everyday thing in my live. I made my first private video call and was shown the Circus Maximus in Rome, live, with an international UMTS video call. Don’t ask what it cost at the time… Over the years that followed, UMTS was significantly enhanced and the next phones I bought such as the legendary Nokia N95 and its descendants sported the High Speed Data Packet Extension (HSDPA) that would push UMTS into the multi-megabit speed domain. And so it went on and I was breathless when I could reach a speed of 30 Mbit/s with Dual Carrier HSDPA in Cologne in 2012.

2012 was probably the peak year for UMTS. LTE had started back in June 2011 in Germany and a bit earlier elsewhere. However, only data cards and USB dongles were available at the time. But shortly afterward, LTE smartphones appeared on the market and it took only little time before all high and mid-end devices were LTE capable. Also LTE network coverage expanded at an amazing speed so UMTS slowly but steadily lost its relevance in the marketplace.

Today in 2020, I still use UMTS but only for one reason: My LineageOS phone is not yet VoLTE capable so I have to fall back to GSM or UMTS for traditional mobile voice calls. But I can’t remember when I’ve last used UMTS for mobile Internet access, as LTE on 800 MHz has overtaken UMTS coverage in Germany many years ago.

Some people say that UMTS was only a half baked technology and didn’t make an impact. But I beg to differ, the gap between UMTS becoming useful in 2005 and LTE becoming useful in the 2012/2013 timeframe could not have been filled by GPRS or its enhancements. But I concede that UMTS still had one foot in the ‘old’ circuit switched voice call world and only LTE made the jump to a real packet-switched only network, if you forget about CS-fallback for voice calls for a moment. But that bridge technology was necessary because with the mindset in the industry in the early 2000’s it would have been impossible to jump from GSM and GPRS to a purely packet switched mobile network straight away. So UMTS played an important part in the history of making the Internet mobile and devices like the Nokia N95 right through to the Nokia N8 where devices that pushed the limits of the mobile Internet at the time.

By today’s standards, UMTS is very limiting. Most network operators only ever had two or three of the 5 MHz wide channels on air which is little compared to the 60-80 MHz of spectrum used for LTE today. And with 5G NR in the 3.5 GHz band that adds up to 100 MHz to LTE, it seems even less. But then again, the mobile Internet back in 2010 was not a mainstream technology yet and web pages and other content was still a lot smaller. To me, UMTS was a prefect technology at its time and I will shed a tear or two when it is finally switched-off in the mid of 2021. Let’s see if I can find out the date and time of the switch-off I will use the network for history’s sake until it is switched-off that day.

5 thoughts on “The End Of UMTS Is Near… Those Where the Days”

  1. Yeah indeed interesting times…

    I wonder if HSDPAland will rather become LTE800land or Edgeland? 😉

    There are still quite some white or well… grey spots… i frequently go to. 3.5G is at least bearable.

  2. Great post Martin taking us through the UMTS evolution journey and how it changed lives for many. Many of us experienced internet browsing on phone using UMTS connections which was thrilling at the beginning. As I see, one of reasons why GPRS/UMTS technologies are being shut-down due to intent of telecom operators to refarm those frequencies for low-band 5G or LTE services as spectrum requirements are ever-increasing and these technologies drive the revenue generation for NSPs.

  3. Nice write-up Martin. I had an N95.

    UMTS (and HSDPA) is underrated but actually played a major role in actually making the mobile Internet a real thing. GPRS and EDGE would never have bridged that gap.

  4. Martin’s commentary on the history and nuance of mobile technology is second-to-none. This odd to UMTS shines a light on why 3G has served as a critical foundation to the IP-centric LTE and, more recently, 5G air interfaces. It was 3G that helped the industry understand the power of high performance IP networks. LTE made it real. With 5G NR further expanding the flexibility of the air interface, thinking about what might make 6G essential becomes a challenge for our imagination.

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