A lack of spectrum available to South African mobile networks forces them to optimise and ‘re-farm’ their existing resources to improve their offerings, and the legacy 2G network is a major obstacle to this process.
Speaking at a media event in Johannesburg, Vodacom CTO Andries Delport said that Vodacom – along with other major mobile operators – wants to turn off its 2G network for consumer handsets, as this would greatly improve its ability to roll out 4G and other modern services.
“We are going to focus on switching 2G off,” Delport said. “However, there are still millions of 2G devices connected to the network.”
Delport clarified that Vodacom would not be able to completely switch off the network, however, as there are many critical systems and telemetry devices connected to the network.
Instead, Vodacom is aiming to switch off its 2G consumer voice network, which would allow it to re-farm this spectrum and improves its 4G coverage and capacity.
“The big benefit for us to re-farm 2G is to improve 4G coverage,” he said. “If we can thin out 2G, it will allow us to use 900Mhz for 4G.”
The problem with turning off 2G
Delport noted that while Vodacom would love to switch off its 2G voice network as soon as possible, the problem is not directly under the operator’s control.
“It’s not something that’s entirely within our control, and it’s not just mobile operators,” Delport said. “Independent retailers sell the bulk of these 2G handsets.”
2G devices are significantly cheaper than 4G smartphones, and they are sold in high volumes to customers who are unable to upgrade to more expensive devices that use 3G or 4G technology.
He said that around a third of all Vodacom devices were still on the 2G network, with about another third on 3G, and the rest on 4G.
There are a great number of other 2G-compatible devices in urban areas, including PoS systems, telemetry hardware, and various low-level communication devices, which would present a great logistical challenge to replace with 3G models.
Turning off 3G
Vodacom said that a number of countries around the world had already turned off their 2G networks, with some even turning off 3G instead.
“A lot of countries around the world have done this already, as it is important to migrate off these legacy technologies,” said Vodacom managing executive for technology strategy, architecture, and innovation Nicholas Naidu.
“It is fair to say there are different opinions; in Europe, they are targeting 3G.”
Turning off 3G in South Africa would be difficult due to the large amount of data traffic present on the network and the lower coverage of 4G – especially in rural areas.
Vodacom said that turning off 2G would allow it to re-farm the 900MHz band and greatly improve its 4G coverage in less-populated areas.
For now, however, it is currently aiming to slowly reduce the amount of spectrum required for its 2G network and repurpose it in smaller batches to aid its modern network roll-out.