Consumers and businesses still reliant on 3G mobile services have just under five years to upgrade to 4G or 5G devices, after Telstra finally called time on the transformative mobile communications standard.

The firm will wind up its 3G network in June 2024 after 18 years in service, the telco has announced while committing to expanding its 4G footprint to provide a “materially equivalent size and reach” by then.

Telstra had been running its 3G services in the 850MHz and 2100MHz radiofrequency spectrum bands, but in 2016 announced that it would shut down its 2100MHz services early in 2019 to provide more capacity for its 4GX network.

The 4GX network is an intermediate step between 4G and 5G, using LTE-Advanced technology to improve speed and in-building coverage by combining the 700MHz ‘digital dividend’ and other 4G spectrum.

December 2016 saw the closure of its legacy 2G mobile services, re-allocating spectrum for its expanding 4G services.

Around that time, reports from Telstra’s 2016 Investor Day suggested that Telstra would shut down its remaining 850MHz holdings “after 2020”.

3G to 5G via 4G

Telstra’s 3G services have lagged behind those of rivals Optus and Vodafone, with a late 2018 OpenSignal analysis finding that Optus’ 3G services were faster, and both Optus and Vodafone provided better 3G latency.Optus has not yet announced a shutdown date for its 3G services, while Vodafone is winding down its 2100MHz spectrum this year and has not set a date for its remaining 900MHz services.

Setting a termination date for Telstra’s 850MHz 3G services will free up radiofrequency spectrum that the carrier will use to support next-generation 5G services.

Seen by some as a game-changer that could compete with the NBN, 5G has been heralded for the many applications it can deliver in areas such as virtual reality, but has also been flagged for potentially negative uses such as being a potential surveillance tool.

“The era of 5G will bring ever greater advancements in areas like mobile gaming, virtual reality experiences, HD video conferencing, driverless cars and other applications that haven’t even been dreamt up yet,” Telstra group executive for networks and IT Nikos Katinakis wrote.

The federal government recently launched an inquiry requesting submissions about use cases for the technology.

Planning your migration

The evolution of 5G has been telegraphed for years, but rapidly came into focus this year with the expansion of early services and a commercial launch that has made services available in 10 major cities – expected to grow to 35 cities by year’s end.

“We are not going to rest on our laurels as we push forward into the era of 5G,” Katinakis wrote, “and we are always going to strive to do the best we can for all our customers wherever they are across the country.”

Support for 5G is still hit-or-miss – the latest iPhones, notably, do not yet support the technology – but the technology will be ubiquitous by the time Telstra is pushing the last stragglers off its 3G network five years from now.

The migration will be more challenging for businesses, which use a broad range of equipment – alarm systems, lift phones, EFTPOS terminals, ATMs, vending machines, and other remote devices – that will also need to be upgraded over time.

Service providers will be developing transition plans, and it is incumbent on businesses to audit their 3G exposure and liaise with those providers to ensure continuity of service.

The migration of connected devices to 4G and 5G networks has gained pace in recent years, with Telstra’s latest annual report noting that its Internet of Things (IoT) business had seen year-on-year revenue growth of 19.4 per cent as an average of 2000 “things” are connected every day.