Mobile connectivity is changing, writes Paul Craig, Head of IoT at OV. With operators expanding their 5G coverage, plans were recently announced to sunset 2G and 3G, phasing the networks out until they’re closed.

While many will welcome the benefit that the latest generation of mobile networks is set to bring to their business, there is concern from others, whose - often critical - IoT devices still rely on 2G and 3G technology. This concern is exacerbated by a degree of ambiguity around when the legacy networks will go offline - when the 2G and 3G network shutdown.

Investing in new 4G and 5G-compatible equipment can be prohibitively expensive; it just isn't an option for many, especially smaller businesses. An interim solution is needed, which will enable businesses to continue operating until the very last minute without having to upgrade or replace their existing hardware immediately.

2G and 3G network shutdown uncertainty

As part of its plans to encourage the smooth transition to faster, more advanced 5G, and eventually 6G mobile networks, the UK Government recently announced the closure of 2G and 3G networks.

Despite the recent announcement, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future of these networks. Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media, O2 and Three have all agreed to close down their 2G and 3G networks before the Government’s stated deadline. However, exactly when is still unclear: some networks will be closing as soon as 2023, while other providers have made no comment.

The IoT market is reliant on the decisions of these networks, which has left businesses in something of a state of flux, beholden to their network provider’s decision as to when their 2G and 3G networks will shutdown, and that’s just the businesses who are aware of it.

In the James Brehm & Associates, IoT Results & News Roundup thru Q3 2019 research, 47% of respondents said their network provider hadn’t been notified about the planned closures. As a result, businesses are being forced to postpone important decisions about 2G and 3G equipment.

Addressing this uncertainty is of particular importance for any business that depends on IoT technology for services such as vehicle tracking, medical monitoring, or remote working. 2G and 3G components will typically be built into connected devices at the point of manufacture; it isn’t easy to swap them out for 4G or 5G replacements later down the line.

For you

Be part of something bigger, join BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

This means that, at the point when 2G and 3G networks go offline, so too will their devices. And when you consider that 4G and 5G equipment can be up to four times more expensive than 2G or 3G, it simply isn’t an option for most companies to replace their existing equipment.

Consider, for example, the estimated 25 million smart meters installed in households and businesses across the UK, most of which are connected to a 2G or 3G network. The cost of replacing each of these meters in one go would be unimaginably huge.

Until further clarity on network providers’ sunsetting plans is available, an alternative, more cost-effective solution is required, one that allows businesses to use their IoT devices for as long as possible before replacing them.

Introducing the multi-network SIM

One such alternative is a multi-network SIM. Multi-network suppliers have access to an ecosystem of providers in the country that the IoT device operates, meaning that, as long as there’s a 2G or 3G network in existence, that device will remain connected.

Indeed, multi-network SIMs can be considered a breakthrough in the IoT sector, eliminating the need to physically replace traditional SIM cards when switching from one network to another.

With either a multi-network SIM installed, an eSIM embedded directly into a device, or an iSIM integrated into a device’s main processor, a business can be confident that its devices will stay connected for as long as is possible.

By replacing the need for physical SIM cards, easily transferrable eSIMs and iSIMs arguably represent the future of connectivity, removing the need for reliance on a single network provider. And for the short term, while we wait for a definitive announcement on 2G and 3G network shutdown, choosing a multi-network SIM provides a solution for the IoT market, allowing businesses to better plan the replacement of their existing equipment.

The government describes the rollout of 5G technology across the UK as ‘revolutionising people’s lives and businesses - connecting people across the UK with faster mobile data and making businesses more productive.’ The lower latency, greater speed, and increased bandwidth 5G offers will certainly open up exciting new opportunities for businesses in the IoT industry.

But in reality, vast amounts of equipment out in the field today rely on existing 2G and 3G networks to function. Until further clarification from the individual network providers, there will be ongoing uncertainty around the timeline for the 2G and 3G sunset.

The roaming potential of multi-network SIMs represents the foreseeable future of cellular IoT - providing an immediate solution for the IoT market as 2G and 3G networks begin sunsetting.

By securing and supporting their services with these multi-network SIMs, eSIMs and iSIMs, businesses can continue to operate in the confidence that those services won’t be disrupted, allowing them to save money and replace the equipment once they have a clearer understanding of the 2G and 3G network shutdown and the changes that lay ahead.

About the author

Paul Craig, is Head of IoT at OV, part of Manx Telecom. Housed on a small island, the company has big ambitions to innovate, test and launch products that change connectivity, globally.